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Published: 2013/03/11
by Sam D'Arcangelo

Billy Martin Goes Heels Over Head

At the Occupy Wall Street protests that I went to, a lot of the music that was played was very brass-centric. A lot of the material in Heels Over Head has that same kind of feel, that music of the streets feel. Was that intentional?

The music of the street? Yeah, in a sense. Really what it comes down to for me was I’ve always dreamt of having brass and drums. It wasn’t centered on the idea of second line, street New Orleans stuff. There’s an African thing, there’s a classical thing, using brass and percussion. In a lot of African music that I love there are certain things from central Africa that you hear that almost sounds like brass but it’s actually different instruments that they blow into. Wood instruments, horns of some kind. I’m into the idea of wind, brass, orchestral sound with drumming. But of course this is deeply rooted in the earth and to me street music is my favorite state to be in. I think a lot of great music comes from the street and from the earth. Folk music and traditional sort of indigenous music—there’s a lot of that spirit that I want to capture with drumming and brass.

Let’s talk about Medeski Martin & Wood for a second. You guys recently had your residency at the Blue Note in New York, which featured a lot of special guests. Were there any particular highlights from that run?

Every night was special, so I guess for me the surprise was, well. Marc Ribot is one of my favorite guitarists to play with. Nels Cline played the night before and he really blew me away. So I’ve got to say as far as a big surprise and getting blown away, it was definitely Nels Cline’s night. Part of it is because I don’t play with Nels. I played with him once before. It was a year before at the Blue Note of all places, and it was a completely improvised set with a group that I’ve never played with. We all just got together to do it and it was great. I knew that Nels would be great with MMW but I had no idea how mind blowing it would be, how amazing his rhythm is, his sounds, his orchestration, his use of space. Just incredible. And of course Marc Ribot. The thing is that I’ve known Marc for a long time, so it wasn’t much of a surprise. He still gives me chills up and down my spine and my hair stands up on my skin when he plays. But Nels was the surprise for me.

So Medeski, Martin & Wood have been playing a lot of acoustic shows lately. What inspired this return to the full on acoustic performances? Has it influenced you guys in other projects like Wicked Knee?

Well, it’s been too long we played with acoustic piano and a chamber setting. It’s something that we’ve been longing to do more often. We haven’t had the opportunity. We kind of had to make a point of doing that last fall and now we’re going to do it on the West Coast. For me it’s just like a higher level of music and experience; we can go a lot places. There are a lot of dynamics. We all play differently.

John [Medeski] is an incredible piano player and a lot of people don’t really hear it when we’re playing in an electric setting. It kind of takes a backseat because of the way the electronic, amplified sound of the piano just doesn’t really cut that way. The piano centered, what I consider the chamber music approach, is a very deep experience for me. We can still groove, we’re still MMW. It’s just another approach to how we make music.

In the early days of Medeski, Martin & Wood we had more of a balance going, with acoustic piano, mixed with electronics. Just lots of surprises. John not only plays piano, he also plays these kind of indigenous instruments like the Slovakian Shepard’s flute. [Laughs.] Or some kind of overtone instrument, like the shruti box, which is a type of drone-like instrument. He gets into these other things. He has many other instruments but they’re all acoustic, produced by vibrating strings or wind.

You guys have a lot of projects going on outside of MMW. Chris [Wood] is in his own acoustic band, John is focused on his solo piano work and your brass/drum ensemble. After over two decades of MMW, are you surprised by where your musical paths have taken you?

Yeah, I always am. I’m blown away by everything that we’re doing, where it’s leading us and whom we reach. It’s just amazing. I’m blown away by it.

What else do you have in the works?

The other project that I’m really into right now is this duo with Wil Blades. He plays organ, and we have a record out called Shimmy. Jambands.com did a review. Another project I’m utilizing Medeski, Martin and Wood in is a benefit record that I’m producing for the Master Musicians of Jajouka, which is an ancient Moroccan music group in a remote village near Tangier in Morocco. They have a history of people who have been there—the Rolling Stones, Robert Palmer, the great writer for Rolling Stone magazine. The New York Times wrote about them a lot. Brian Jones from the Rolling Stones recorded them way back and released a record. Anyway, they asked me to put together a record of remixes, so we’ve got this record with Ornette Coleman, Flea, Medeski, Martin and Wood, Marc Ribot, DJ Logic, Mickey Hart, and a few other surprise guests that I’m working on now. The track with Medeski, Martin and Wood and Marc Ribot is really amazing. The record will be coming out in the summer. It’s something to look forward to as far as listening to this track and how we integrated Jajouka music. It’s classic MMW but a really fresh kind of thing we’re doing and Marc Ribot is playing guitar and banjo on it. It’s amazing.

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