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Published: 2008/09/23
by Brian Ferdman

Zaebos: Book of Angels, v. 11 – Medeski, Martin and Wood

Zaebos: Book of Angels, v. 11 – Medeski, Martin and Wood, Tzadik
Radiolarians 1 – Medeski, Martin and Wood Indirecto
Medeski, Martin, and Wood are one of the more unique acts recording music today. The jazz-honed trio is comprised of three virtuosos with a broad knowledge of styles and genres, and they have an uncanny ability to lock into funky grooves or wander off into an esoteric space of discordant sounds and odd rhythms. Somewhat amazingly, they have developed hard-core fans of each style of their music, although it’s exceedingly rare that a person enjoys both halves of their musical coin. Lately, they’ve become incredibly unpredictable, with their live shows becoming rather polarizing, thrilling half the crowd while aggravating the other half. After a nearly four year hiatus from the studio—give or take a kids’ album and a duo set from Billy Martin and John Medeski—they have returned to simultaneously release two new albums, which have anticipating fans wondering exactly which MMW will show up on the record.

Zaebos, Book of Angels, Volume 11 relies upon a series of charts composed by avant garde musician John Zorn. Such material is both appropriate and familiar for these musicians, who have logged time in Zorn’s earliest Masada ensembles. The Middle Eastern/Klezmer/Jewish themes of the music lend themselves well to MMW’s ability to spin like whirling dervishes on a song like ‘Zagzagel’ or ooze emotion and pathos out of a spooky ballad, such as the gentle but haunting ‘Sefrial.’ Having these compositions filtered through MMW’s lense provides plenty of opportunity for reinvention, as ‘Rifion’ is reborn as a Dave Brubeck number, while ‘Jeduthun’ becomes the kind of cacophonous noise machine that either delights or appalls fans. The closing pairing of the ultra-creepy ‘Kalach Ha Sopher’ with the more introspective ‘Tutrusa’i’ is right up this band’s alley, giving them ample space to shake rattles made of deer hooves, bang on pots and pans, and revel in a dark piano-and-bass groove.

Radiolarians 1 is the first release in a three-part series that finds MMW composing in a new way. First they created a skeleton for the songs, then they fleshed those compositions out on the road before they finally returned to the studio to record the tracks. The process has resulted in a very cohesive and enjoyable work that has broad appeal. However, first impressions can often be misleading, and no one should judge the work based upon the nearly three minutes of ambient fog that opens First Light before the track finally finds its footing. The following Cloud Wars falls right into an intense groove but often disintegrates and then rematerializes, as only this band can. Once the dramatic tones of Spaghetti Western-on-peyote Muchas Gracias take hold, the album really begins to take shape. Professor Nohair is a brilliant and extremely joyful and funky romp through grooves that cleverly evoke both New Orleans pianists Professor Longhair and James Booker, and it features some of the most outstanding and playful piano work John Medeski has recorded to date. Both Reliquary and Free Go Lily sound like signature MMW tunes, although each shows a different side of the band. The former is a racing pedal-to-the-metal burner and the latter slots itself deep inside the funk. Rolling Son gives Billy Martin his opportunity to bang on all sorts of drums, but what makes this number somewhat unusual for him (and enjoyable for me) is the steady beat from the hi-hat that manages to keep this freewheeling number on track. Sweet Pea Dreams finds Medeski trotting out a grin-inducing riff against a samba groove, and just when everything is sounding happy-go-lucky, all sorts of chaos in odd time-signatures breaks out on God Fire. An album that has a little bit of everything closes with the mysterious Hidden Moon, which is anchored by Chris Woods tribal bassline.

Its been four years since this trio has released a studio album of non-childrens music, and it seems as though their creative energies were pent up for so long that theyre bursting forth in a prolific output. Its not quite fair to compare the two albums because they are so different, but when both are released at the same time, comparisons are inevitable. Zaebos, Book of Angels Volume 11 is certainly the more caustic, improvisational work, while Radiolarians 1 is incredibly polished but still sounds fresh and lively. Seeing as how the band had spent so much time creating the songs on the latter, they sound much more comfortable on it than they do on the former, which crackles with a bit of nervous energy. Not to take anything away from Zaebos, Book of Angels Volume 11, but I find myself astounded by Radiolarians 1, and its been a long time since an MMW recording has wowed me to such a degree. The time they spent working out these tunes has definitely paid off and resulted in not only a fantastic album but also an album that amazingly appeals to both the fans of the groove and the fans of the chaos. Somehow bridging the gap between the two divergent camps, Radiolarians 1 just might be my favorite MMW album to date.

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