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Published: 2002/04/22
by Bill Stites

Uninvisible – Medeski, Martin, and Wood

Blue Note Records 7243 5 35870 2 4

It would be damn near impossible to write a review of Uninvisible
without repeatedly using the word "groove". Which puts me in a tough spot:
because I think it's come, through no real fault of its own, to
represent almost everything that sucks about this scene. Still, Medeski,
Martin and Wood are among those contemporary musicians who lend
the last shreds of credibility to the word and the concept. So, as a nod to reality, I will
strive to get all of my remaining "grooves" out of the way in the next paragraph:

MMW sure can groove, can't they? In fact, they've practically defined the
word for a generation of kids whose first lessons in instrumental music were
the groove-in-its-purest-form offerings from the middle period of the trio's
career to date — Friday Afternoon through Combustication.
And yet, it seems the reason they groove so damn well is that they can do so
much more than just groove. To be sure, there's a mighty groove running
through 1997's anarchic Farmer’s Reserve, a real-time improvisation
recorded in their famous shack in Maui, but it might not be recognizable to
someone whose idea of grooving extends no further than "Bubblehouse". The
band's last two releases, the beautiful live acoustic disc Tonic, and
the furious, weird and wonderful The Dropper, also make it clear that
these guys groove as naturally as they breathe at this point, but the
grooves are not their focus. Rather, they play a background role, as an
understood asset that facilitates the fantastic sense of composition that
oozes from those two records. The grooves are a starting point — creative
fodder, not an end in themselves.

Initially, Uninvisible seems to represent a swing in the opposite direction.
The tracks sound like skeletal versions of The Dropper's sound collages, which stretched and mutated improvised ideas under layers of overdubs and sonic
manipulation, like rock strata bent by an encroaching mountain. By
contrast, most of Uninvisible's selections are minimal, and exhibit
little development over their length. And the "g" word has figured heavily
in the band members' interviews surrounding its release.

Putting that aside for a moment, equally notable about Uninvisible is
that there are guest musicians featured prominently on almost all the
tracks. And, it immediately becomes clear, every one of them is employed
extremely well. There's some damn near show-stealing guitar playing by
Danny Blume. As though Billy Martin weren't sufficient in that department,
Eddie Bobe contributes percussion on a few tracks, helping to create some
dense, yet surprisingly smooth, rhythms. And they capture Col. Bruce
Hampton more tastefully than he has been in years, which actually helps make
"Your Name Is Snake Anthony" one of the album's best tunes, instead of the
cross-jamband (oops!) embarrassment it could well have been.

Turntables are ubiquitous on Uninvisible. There is ambient
background scratching, there are scratches dancing around with the
percussion, sometimes multiple layers deep. Their producer, the
returning-from-The Dropper Scott Harding, is a DJ himself, and it shows – the deft and creativity with which scratching is used on this album is
staggering, light years beyond DJ Logic's career-making contribution to
Combustication. They bring two pretty heavy hitters in for the
session – DJ P-Love, and the uber-hip DJ Olive – but I suspect Scott
himself he may actually be behind the album's neatest trick: At the
beginning of "Pappy Check", P-Love is scratching over Billy's drum fills,
then for a few seconds it sounds as though he's scratching with
Billy's drum fills, then it switches back seamlessly. It's cool as hell,
and easy to miss.

There are exhilarating, inventive moments like that all over the disk.
There's actually a hell of a lot going on in these tracks, just in a very
unassuming way, which ends up rewarding repeated listening "holy shit, I
never noticed that before!" There's plenty of John's trademark organ
playing, but far more interesting are the ambiences he creates with the
Wurlitzer and the Mellotron, sculpting for each piece its own distinctive
atmosphere. Some of the tunes, especially in the album's more noir-y and
experimental second half, eschew keyboard melodies entirely, using
bare-bones bass and drums as a hook upon which to hang a spectrum of eerie,
slippery sounds.

Chris is at his absolute best here: simple and deadly, with lots and lots of
space left unfilled. Check out "Nocturnal Transmission" (incidentally
featuring the horn section from Antibalas, one of the few outfits in New
York whose hipness could possibly exceed DJ Olive's), a fantastic Curtis
Mayfield-like funk number powered almost entirely by Chris's bass, to hear
exactly how much structure great basslines can give a piece: they
successfully create the illusion of a much larger band, playing a much
larger arrangement. And to praise Billy's work at this point is almost
redundant — in the last few years he has increasingly established himself
as one of the most exciting and original figures in modern music. His
unusual, spare, flawless drumbeats are the album's backbone, and perhaps its
central nervous system as well.

Still, the more I listen to Uninvisible the more I feel that the
credit for the album's success lies as much with Scott Harding as it does with
the musicians whose names get to be above the title. Hard's background in
hip-hop seems to have taught him exactly the skills needed to make these
kinds of pieces work — first and foremost, the understanding that the soul
of repetitive music is in the details. Rather than using post-production to
alter the music originally played, as they did so well on The
Dropper, the pieces on Uninvisible are enhanced and supported by
it, encouraging and capitalizing on their original form instead of changing
it. The result is incredibly three-dimensional; the instruments sound alive
and full of color, and many of the pieces create environments that I
actually wish I could inhabit for longer than a few minutes at a time. I
can't think of a better litmus test than that for truly great minimalism.
If there were more music like this in the world to legitimize it, I wouldn't
have to feel so embarrassed about defying my own rule, and closing this
review with the word "groove".

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