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Published: 2012/09/26
by Brian Robbins

Medeski Martin & Wood
Free Magic

Indirecto Records

Captured in a (mostly) acoustic live setting, Medeski Martin & Wood’s Free Magic offers up servings of world groove, multi-colored blues, and free-range funk – a modern-day jazz masterpiece.

Recorded at three different venues during the band’s tour in 2007, Free Magic is all meat and bone and sweat and smiles – a very intimate piece of work.

Free Magic enters on the backs of tie-dyed pachyderms amidst “Doppler”’s swirls of melodica (John Medeski), hypnotic percussion by Billy Martin, and long-drawn bowed bass by Chris Wood. Wood is the first to ease into the unhurried funkiness of the tune’s main riff, letting it simmer while his bandmates make the transition from Eastern to Western groove. It’s MMW at their best – and you are right there.

The exception to the album’s acoustic setting comes when Chris Wood straps on his Paul McCartney-style Hofner violin bass for the band’s segue from the space jam of the title track into “Ballade In C Minor”. Medeski and Martin hold down the fort with trickles of keys and splashes of other-worldly percussion while Wood plugs in. He then proceeds to double-up “Ballade”’s melody with Medeski’s weirdly-detuned piano for a bit before going off in a faraway place of his own with the brave little Hofner. Have no fear – there’s plenty of acoustic Wood to be had on Free Magic as well: when he breaks loose on the upright during the first half of the “Nostalgia In Times Square” > “Angel Race” medley, it’s nothing but fat-toned bass bliss.

Billy Martin’s major spot in the sun is the latter half of the epic “Where’s Sly”; for the first eight minutes or so, the trio plays it cool, testing the tune’s melody and rhythm subtly with no sacrifice of groove. At the midway point, however, the top comes off the box and Martin takes off in a “How-many-damn-arms-does-he-have-anyway?” percussion expedition that ranges far and wide while keeping the listener engaged. At one point someone in the audience calls out, “Thank you, Billy!” – you’ll feel like saying it, as well.

The album’s romp is “Blues For Another Day”, which is as advertised – once it works through the hectic and free opening section. The first four minutes’ helter-skelteredness gives way to some powerful blues testifying by Medeski: he offers grinning high-keyed flurries that are offset by handfuls of low-end minor chords, building the intensity of the piece until it has no choice but to take off running at the eight-minute mark. Chris Wood smokes the neck of his upright with Martin in hot pursuit. The only thing lacking is Dean Moriarty in the front row yelling “Yes! Yes!” Thankfully, Medeski has the grace to let things down easy with a final glide of solo piano, allowing all hands to catch their collective breath.

Beautifully recorded (David Kent deserves the credit there), Free Magic is loaded with the excitement of mad masters letting it fly without a net.

Simply put, this is a classic.

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