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Published: 2013/01/31
by Mike Greenhaus

Medeski Scofield Martin & Wood: Still A Go Go

Shifting back to your Terrapin shows, how did you approach organizing the setlists?

JM: Phil would let us know what he wanted to play for each night. Then, he told me to check out different Phil Lesh & Friends eras to listen to. I suggested a few songs, and we did some of them.

JS: For Phil it is all about the improvisation. He is the only rock star I have met where intellectually, as a concept, he wants it to be spontaneous. He doesn’t care if there are mistakes. He wants there to be some magic stuff—more than just playing the right chords.

MMW also recently released a new acoustic live album, Free Magic. It came out after you celebrated your 20th anniversary—and MMW started as an acoustic group. Why did you decide to release an acoustic album at this stage in your career?

CW: The tour where that music came from was 5 or 6 years ago. And the reason we didn’t put it out sooner—[mimicking an advertising voiceover] on our new record Free Magic, out now [Laughter.]—is the same reason the live MSMW record didn’t come out sooner. It is hard to listen to yourself so close to when a show happened. You need time to go by to have any sort of perspective at all. If you are going to produce yourself you need time to separate yourself—to forget and to really hear the music objectively. We tried to put that MSMW live album out but we couldn’t—you can’t listen to yourself. You remember how you felt at the gig and you are too caught up. You remember too much. A few years go by and you can really put the recordings on and judge it for what it is. So I think the timing really worked out where our 20th anniversary happened, and we felt ready to tackle all that stuff and make the live record happen. It seemed like a logical next step and was a fun way for us to tour—that’s how we began, as a piano trio.

JM: We always feel like we are doing [all of our musical sides] but we don’t have time to always go back and listen to what we just did because we are moving onto what’s next. We also all have individual projects. We always think about where we are going. It is hard to sit around with all these tapes. We are not really a nostalgic band.

CW: If you multi-track record an entire tour it is hard to sort through. You have 10 versions of all these songs—it takes long boring plane rides and van rides where you have nothing else to do but sit there and listen to all that.

BM: Thanks to Chris’ long boring tour rides [with Wood Brothers] it has really helped us to get this album out.

CW: I was good at starting. Once I said, “I like this song,” then you get someone else to listen to it and say, “I don’t like this song.” But it is cool because we’ve started the process and something is happening. If they don’t like that version, they have to find one that they do like. The ball is in their court and, eventually, we all come to a consensus. Democracy takes a long time, let’s face it.

JM: We started as an acoustic band and expanded from there for touring reasons. I don’t think we thought, “Let’s do an acoustic record to restart after our 20th anniversary.” It has always been one of the things we do, and we like to do it. It creates a different vibe, and it is more intimate. For us, it forces us to listen and play in a different way. We like to do it to keep that connection.

BM: It also coincided with this acoustic tour we just did. It was really only our second official acoustic tour so it made sense to release at that time. What I love about the record is that it is like chamber music. You are really hearing each of us in a different way. There is a lot more dynamics and space to listen to each other. John has a prepared piano and all these other instruments that he brings out, which are acoustic. He has a shepherd’s flute. We get into these other worlds and it is a nice change. All these other types of composing and improvising comes out after these acoustic songs.

JM: It is almost like when we play with different people. It brings out different voices—if you really are improvising and interacting it is going to be different. Look at John Scofield, who has his more straight-head jazz project and the Uberjam. That is another way we are similar, we like to do all these different projects.

CW: Yeah, we like playing on the Jam Cruise and when we go up there we know it is going to be a party. There is no question—we are dealing with a deck of a ship where people are drinking and dancing and talking. It is nice and it is fun but what we liked about the acoustic tour is that it sets up this whole different environment where we are playing concerts in this seated, listing environment. You can hear a pin drop.

JS: We are doing Jam Cruise without a roadie—schlepping our own gear—a sign of the future. Maybe the fans will help with our gear!

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There are 9 comments associated with this post

me February 5, 2013, 03:10:07

Sco might want to invest in some hearing aids. Honestly, I will not see him with another line up unless he’s unplugged and acoustic, which will never happen. After seeing MMW for years, and loving their sound and improv’s, Sco basically destroyed the 2 sets we saw him with MMW. The rest of the band was about 20% lower than he was, the whole, danged, time. Seeing him at the Boulder theatre with MMW he was killing the sound. I should have complained to the front of house guy, the entire band was overshadowed everytime he took a solo, and often during his comping too. He seems to never turn down. MMW normally approaches perfection live, their sound is full, and the balance nuance and listening is reinforced by it. I couldn’t bear to listen to the tape of it out there because I knew what I heard, in person, and on my own audio snapshots I took of the show. Before that, the guy blew out Warren and Phil both, at Phil in Friends 2.18.12 show in Broomfield, CO. His levels were ridiculous, and he actually was pissed and made the “hurry it up motion and you’re jerking off” when someone else wasn’t dominating with his over the top runs and interpretations on Garcia’s charted melodic runs, which, as expected he read off the on stage computer monitors that Phil uses. It was pretty disappointing, to feel like he could have shined within the ensemble sound, but always felt the need to stand out and well above. And I’m sorry, but his tone of guitar I don’t find all that “jazzy” and full a lot of the time either.

Rick D February 5, 2013, 17:39:14

Sco doesn’t have the improv chops to go toe to toe with MMW, plus his tone is boring after a set. He limits the band live. There is much less improv and notice how few MMW songs get played when he is with them…You want a GREAT guitarist for MMW, look for gigs with Marc Ribot

Mr. Green February 6, 2013, 11:42:04

I couldn’t disagree more with “me” and Rick D’s comments other than the praise for Ribot.

Colin N. February 6, 2013, 13:59:15

I’m with you Mr. Green. I can’t say I’ve seen this quartet play together recently. I did catch them circa 98-99 on the A Go Go tour, except Clyde Stubblefield was on drums. John S. was echelons above the play of the others, though admittedly, as it was his album, he was the featured musician. Me: The concert experience you described is unfortunate. I recognize J. S.‘s sometimes abrasive tone is not for everyone, though I don’t see how he can be left out of any legitimate conversation as one of the best living jazz fusion guitarists. I would not put MMW in the same conversation in their respective roles, though perhaps you would. I feel your comment about levels reflects more upon the front of the house stuff, which you accounted for, though I might make the case more strongly. Sco is getting old, and the decades of touring have likely caught up with his ear drums. I feel it is the job of the sound man to adjust these levels accordingly—not Sco—as they are in a better position to judge the sound in the audience. Bands can better judge the “stage sound” from the monitors than they can the audience’s perspective. I too love Mark Ribot.

Rob February 6, 2013, 16:18:22

“Sco doesn’t have the improv chops to go toe to toe with MMW” thats the single funniest thing i have ever heard in my life

PJ February 6, 2013, 17:21:28

I don’t like MMSW, but like MMW, and I like Sco… he has the improv chops, he just plays his dumbed-down ‘jamband’ style with them and they in turn shrink into the corner. IMO, of course. Rick, check him out with Bill Stewart and Steve Swallow! Ribot is great but, come on… Medeski Martin Cline and Wood… that’s what I wanna see on an album cover!

Colin N. February 6, 2013, 22:41:31

I like Sco with Nussbaum and Swallow too. Here’s a clip from some early stuff. I love the color Sco creates behind Swallow’s bass solo. I’m not saying this is the best thing Sco has ever done by a long shot, but this conversation reminded me of this song, which I probably haven’t heard since the late 90’s so I thought I’d post it for you too. (Gawd damn youtube, you have everything!)

Steve February 9, 2013, 13:40:55

I agree with you Colin and is certainly a front of house issue regarding audience monitor balance. Nice link too. People never have an in between reaction to Sco’s tone: either love it or hate it but never any denial of who it is. Personally I love it all (though the latest live MMSW release didn’t thrill me). Certainly can’t pass judgement of two shows over a relationship of 13 years. At the very least, MMW’s musical instincts are beyond most and they very honest as well so obviously they have something worth pursuing. I would like to hear a 4th member match their NYC avant garde underground approach bit more with a repetoire for textures. Did anyone hear the Bluenote Nels Cline show recently?

Peachhead February 10, 2013, 17:47:29

weird, I saw the show the next night at the Ogden (after the boulder theater) and I couldn’t disagree more. I thought that the band had more or less even volumes (if anyone was the loudest, it was medeski), and I thought it was fantastic- definitely equal improv among all 4 members

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