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Published: 2001/12/19
by Jesse Jarnow

Stray Dog – Um
Black Elk Speaks – Billy Martin

Outrageous/Ropeadope Records 001

Amulet Records 007

Medeski, Martin, and Wood are probably the best institution in the music world right now, and perhaps its best jazz combo. Consider this: bands like MMW and the Jazz Mandolin Project, as well as musicians like Charlie Hunter, regularly draw a larger audience than most of the jazz musicians outside of the Marsalis family — which is to say, most of 'em. There are a few holdovers who pop up at mid-sized halls every now and again, but the point is this: MMW is not underground. They are the mainstream of jazz. Or perhaps not. Perhaps they are something else. Perhaps the term "mainstream jazz" has taken on a new meaning separate from its literal one, just as "modernity" now indicates a whole set of aesthetics in the wave of post-modernity.

At any rate, there's clearly an audience for this material. And, at this point, MMW clearly leads the pack from both an artistic and commercial point-of-view, with each new release being more forward-thinking than the last, weirder than the last, even. On top of it, they can still draw an audience just about anywhere in the country, with their popularity only increasing as they play further out. Hell, I love it. Mainstream? Post-mainstream? Jazz? Despite their allegiance to experimentation, they also have an faithfulness to a certain tradition: that, despite the fact that they are dedicated members of the trio, they are also still individuals with unique musical voices.

They recognize the ultimately fatalistic element of playing in a totally democratic band. With a pair of new releases – Um's "Stray Dog" (prominently featuring John Medeski on keyboards) and Billy Martin's "Black Elk Speaks" (his second solo outing on Amulet Records this year) – we are treated to discs that further the musicians voices without being ego-trips. These two discs are not products of years of pent-up frustration of not being able to express these ideas within the scope of MMW. Rather, they are totally natural outgrowths of MMW's methodology.

Medeski hasn't been particularly prone to leading his own side-projects, though he's served as a sideman on a good deal of them. His work with Um – an incarnation of the Hal Crook Group – lies somewhere between a band member and a session cat. Recorded over two nights in Providence, Rhode Island, Hal Crook's trombone – filtered through an octavizing gizmo called the "trom-o-tizer" – is the prominent voice in the group. The device gives Crook access to a wide range of simultaneous overtones and harmonies. As critic Rick Anderson has pointed out, the trom-o-tizer "the intervals don't change from major to minor according to their place in the tonal structure of the piece; all harmonic movement in the chords is strictly parallel, which makes for an eerie, astringent sound".

The sound is a distinct one, often sounding more like a guitar or a synthesizer than a wind instrument, but it is also quite gimmicky and, after a certain point, grating — similar to the MIDI freak-outs on No Glue's self-titled debut. The band is so wild, though, that it doesn't really matter. Guitarist Rick Peckham's rhythm work is simultaneously subtle and surprisingly song shaping. Drummer Bob Guillotti's percussion rolls off of his kit with a supreme airiness, sounding not so much like he is marking time as he is pulling a natural rhythm out of the air. After a certain point, Crook's trom-o-tizer begins to make all of the songs sound the same — an ignorant complaint, admittedly, but the tone simply wears on the ears. From what can be heard through the effects, he is certainly capable of fine melodic invention. Playing it all with the same twist gets a little predictable, like a writer who always brings his work back to the same metaphor.

It is wrong to speak of Medeski's work as if it is more important than that of the four men whose regular gig he is sitting in at. It is, however, interesting to figure out where the work fits in with MMW. In recent years, as the trio has gone further and further out, Medeski has focused less on the organ in favor of more unearthly tones. His work here (as well as on "Sex Mob Does Bond") finds him back behind the box where he first found his popular voice, darting crazily across the keys and reminding the listener that the Hammond is capable of more in contemporary music than just lame funk (made "authentic" simply because of the use of the Hammond) and Jimmy Smith tributes. It can still be a downright percussive thing, rolling and ringing through, over, and below any arrangement. It is refreshing.

Recent years have also found Billy Martin floating up and away from his trap set-up to the myriad of strange and wonderful percussion instruments sitting atop blanketed road cases in his corner of the stage. Unfortunately, these devices – including mbiras, small gongs, and numerous shakers – can not often be heard over the din of the crowd. Thus, a major melodic, though quiet, voice in MMW sound is often lost. "Black Elk Speaks" – nominally a "musical adaptation to the spirit, visions, and stories of the great Ogiata Sioux warrior and medicine man Black Elk" – has Martin building solo improvisations around the unique qualities of various instruments. With the exception of the Stridulations – a seven part, 15-minute opus for temple blocks – most everything succeeds beautifully. Metamorphosis (for double mbiras) is haunting and ghostly, sounding not unlike a rich gamelan.

When Martin drums in MMW, he brings with him a whole sonic jungle, and he is simply passing through it, creating a continuous landscape that he yearns to relax and luxuriate in, but cannot for fear of falling behind the rest of the pack. MMW's forays into free jazz have allowed him a little more leeway, but this is the ultimate. Medeski, Martin, and Wood play dense, tightly wound music. "Black Elk Speaks" lets Martin uncoil like a botanist who has a built his dream house in somewhere below the canopy.

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