Medeski / Ribot / Warner / Wood, Tonic, NYC- 12/15
B>NYC ROLL-TOP: Meanwhile, At Tonic
Tonic, the no frills Lower East Side home of Manhattan's jazz scene is, to quote David Byrne, "a multi-purpose shape: a box." When the members of Medeski, Martin, and Wood engage in the kind of old-time gigmen work that eventually fed into their now seemingly permanent trio, it is most often done there, in front of small, crammed crowd. With a baby grand piano on one corner of the cramped platform (next to a note politely asking musicians to refrain from resting their drinks on it), and a red velvet curtain hanging behind, it is exactly the sort of place one would imagine Medeski, Martin, and Wood chilling at when not making hippies dance in regal old movie palaces and converted hayfields across North America.
For three nights in early December, they returned. On the 13th, keyboardist John Medeski joined Boston's ever-morphing Club d'Elf collective; on the 14th, drummer Billy Martin trioed with old trap-kit buddy G. Calvin Weston and the perennial DJ Logic; and, on the 15th, bassist Chris Wood joined Medeski, guitarist Marc Ribot, and drummer Skoota Warner. The first two being semi-regular projects, it was the third that seemed most enticing, not in the least because of the inclusion of Ribot, whose barbed-wire melodies still sound as fresh as they did in the '80s. Warner, though, played the wild card, insuring that nobody could fall onto past habits.
After a strange Moog invocation by Medeski, the group settled into alternating breaks of ambience and frenzy — warming up, in a way, by feeling out the opposite ends of the spectrum. A fragment of the Cuban-tinged "I Love Lucy" theme (accidentally?) slipped from Ribot's fingers and melted into a jagged blues while Medeski – forsaking Tonic's baby grand for his Rhodes, Hammond, Moog, and a few toys – tinkered with textures. It was Warner who pushed them definitively (if subtly) into the meat of the performance, propelling into a breakneck drum throb, all organ squiggles, guitar shred, and precisely dancing bass from his bandmates.
The band pursued several ideas through the rest of the early set — a brief dub excursion (again, solidified by Warner) with Ribot laying on the reverb while Wood thinned to a minimalist pulse, some punk blues with Ribot still working at his current project of wrapping his gravely baritone around vaguely sweet melodies ("I'm a fool," he sang, "a fool for beauty"); and eventually Ribot (again with the Ribot) turning his electric guitar down entirely and playing directly through his vocal microphone. Sounding across between a thin ukulele and Dr. Eugene Chadbourne's prepared guitar LPs, Ribot duetted with Wood, finding a new (or rarely employed) voice that still sounded exactly and implacably like himself. As usual, Ribot played perfectly common chords that sounded nothing like any perfectly common chords anybody else could (or would choose to) strum.
By the end of the 90 minute early set, late show attendees piling into Tonic's narrow entryway, the band settled into an MMW-patented inside-out groove: music that manages to remain perfectly accessible (read: danceable) even while the musicians are blowing their hats off out in the free jazz oort cloud. And so they left it, the four men temporarily separating themselves from their instruments and filtering out into the crowd, while Tonic employees frantically attempted to clear the room for the now half-hour late 10:00 set. The police were pulling up as we left.