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Published: 2002/11/06
by Jesse Jarnow

Medeski Martin & Wood, Hammerstein Ballroom, NYC- 10/31

NYC ROLL-TOP: The Lone Trio Rides Again's funny, really, 'cause Medeski Martin and Wood's Shack-man – their
unabashed, B3-driven 1996 groove-fest – practically single-handedly changed
the face of the jamband scene — or, at the very least, what the kids
(myself included) were listening to. It was Phish-endorsed. It was
danceable. It was funky (yeah, I said it). Most importantly, it had an
intelligence to it that was somehow compatible with the mix of
post-punk/post-prog that had been burbling in the northeast. The kids
listened to it, and they started bands of their own. Now, it's hard to spit
without hitting some band that prides themselves in their grooves or their
ability to play The Funk or something like that.

And the reason why all of that is funny is because, on Halloween at New
York's Hammerstein Ballroom – at perhaps Medeski, Martin and Wood's biggest
headlining show to date – there was practically nobody dancing. Looking out
from the mezzanine, it looked as if the crowd were collectively nodding its
head along with the trio for the bulk of the show. There were isolated
patches of movement throughout the crowd, of course, but it wasn't until
midway through the second set that people started to really throw down. That
was just fine, too.

When the band took the stage bedecked in Halloween weirdness (drummer Billy
Martin had to be plugged in by a techie), they launched into a dark,
dissonant jam. On one hand, the improvisation was very much like the weird
free jazz that finds its home in New York clubs like Tonic, in the scene
were MMW find their roots. On the other hand, there was something far more
majestic about the way MMW performed it. Perhaps it was just the size of the
room, but MMW seem to have come up with a truly mature voice for their free
playing, one every bit as enticing as the groove music they still
occasionally engage in. Whether or not this voice will catch on and spawn
new explorers is still up for grabs (and, I suppose, something of an
irrelevant question as long as MMW continue to play like they have been).

In any event, all the atonality didn't simply serve as a tension-builder
before dropping into something more consonant. It existed for its own sake,
and not in any narcissistic way, either. It was just cool. So, when the band
subtly slammed into the title track off of The Dropper, the momentum
wasn't exactly upped, so much as gracefully shifted. A long percussion solo
from Martin, who has been performing numerous side shows in recent months,
punctuated the first set. His work has paid off handsomely. Where his solo
percussion sets have been experimental, occasionally falling flat in a deft
willingness to expand his palette, what he has brought back to MMW (at least
at the Hammerstein) was consistently wonderful, flowing from one instrument
to another.

The band's second set didn't quite match up to the first. Opening with a
Martin-led percussion ensemble invocation (featuring John Medeski, Chris
Wood, and others on woodblocks), the band welcomed numerous special guests
to the stage. First up was opening act DJ Spooky, who added subliminal
ambience to the set opening "Dracula" and "Partido Alto". His contributions
were wonderful and understated. In all, he probably should've stayed out
longer than just the first two numbers. The band was soon joined by Smokey
Hormel, guitarist for Beck, whose bossa nova project with Cibo Matto's Miho
Hatori opened the show. Playing a classical acoustic, Hormel had a little
trouble finding a groove, though ultimately added some great texture
underneath the jam.

For the most part, MMW only seem to welcome guests to the stage who might
make a significant contribution to the music. And while they tend to play
with extra musicians more often than some outfits, they do so carefully.
Like their forays into funk, it is an act common for the bands that have
followed them, but has not often met with the same success. They rarely have
guests simply for the sake of having them, and they certainly don't glide on
the assumed automatic magic that might occur when extra musicians show up.

All that said, the band then welcomed up a new edition of the Uninvisible
Horns, led (as always) by Sex Mob leader Steven Bernstein. The horn quartet
had trouble finding a comfortable place in the music. Comprised of slide
trumpet, saxophone, trombone, and tuba, the horns sounded a bit too bright,
a bit too sonically sharp, for the gradual and meticulous music MMW were
making. About midway through the set, somewhere near the segue between a
cover of Jimi Hendrix's "Fire" and the band's own "Smoke", people started
dancing. It was interesting watching it. It wasn't so much that the music
had changed drastically as that it almost needed to happen.

Having already explored the opposite ends of the spectrum with
Shack-man and The Dropper, it will be interesting to see what
they develop into. As their popularity continues to (apparently) grow, it is
almost as if they need to refine the stately weirdness of the show's opening
into song form — a kind of ambient free jazz, challenging and atonal, but
also accessible and graceful. With occasional shouts of "Wilson!" or other
inanities, it's definitely kinda funny…

Jesse Jarnow thinks it's all a mystery

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