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Published: 2005/03/17
by Jesse Jarnow

Medeski Martin & Wood, Tonic, NYC- 3/7 & 8

NYC ROLL-TOP: Freaking the Flight Ecstatic

Like freak-groove cosmonauts, Medeski, Martin, and Wood descended on Manhattan's Tonic on March 7th and 8th in a valiant effort to save the city's most unquestionably bitchin' jazz club from a heinously premature demise. With the club almost three-quarters of the way to the $100,000 needed to stay in business, it's very likely that a goodly chunk o' change came from the few hundred bodies shoehorned into the Lower East Side box (and most deliriously happy to pay $35 a set for the privilege). And, Jah bless 'em, the M, the other M, and the not-Dubya brought the goods, playing the intuitively abstract Sun Ra funk left behind on turn-of-the-century classics like The Dropper and Tonic, the acoustic live album recorded shortly after the club opened in 1998.

When MMW's albums began heading into free territory, it seemed (in part) a reactionary move — an attempt to bug out some of the hippies who'd started showing up at their shows after Phish's Trey Anastasio proclaimed them The Shit. Anastasio was right, of course. Since coming to grips with their dance-happy following on their more recent releases and becoming reliable international suppliers of groove, the band's rare Tonic appearances have become a dependable source of the pure stuff: weirdly beautiful atonal music that doesn't so much shed rhythm as to burrow deeper inside it. The two late sets, both predominantly improvised with songs near the end, were perfect, each constructed with a rare and poetic arc.

The evening of the first show was oddly warm, the club's doors open and a satisfying pre-spring breeze cutting through the crowd. The band was joined by the perennial DJ Logic and Club d'Elf percussionist/oud player (oudist?) Brahim Fribgane, and followed something like a standard path for a heavily improvised set: chaos to form. It was a patient build. Medeski provided the Moog invocation, and they were off.

Wood plucked a two-note pattern, which Medeski picked up on synth, and eventually piano, where he gradually teased the notes out into sparse, delicate chords. Fribgane led the ensemble into a full-fledged Eastern excursion. Logic did well to acquit himself of the sins of ubiquity, busting out discs filled with operatic pennywhistles, cubist electronic grids (for which he locked up with Martin in an impeccably bizarre groove), and a whole lotta oozing vinyl fuzz (the latter recreating the band's classic (?) nocturnal Combustication-era sound). At its peak, the music hummed along with lysergic intensity, threatening to shatter, actually shattering, rotating its core molecules, twisting, and recombining into something new.

By contrast, the 8th was a dark and stormy night. Informed by a pair of more assertive guests — Martin's old drummer/sparring buddy G. Calvin Weston and fusion violinist Charlie Burnham — night two was far more propulsive, though no less magical. Martin and Weston were the center of attention (it was hard for them not to be!), with all other pieces falling around them. The musicians pounded through crescendo after crescendo, fired heavily by Burnham's rubbery wah-colored violin lines. Weston blew on a trumpet, playing in rhythm with himself. Medeski painted with gentle piano voicings, melancholy and muted, Martin accompanying him with a woodblock polyrhythm. Later, Martin's duck calls squawked against Medeski's plucky melodica.

At their best, MMW were simultaneously Sun Ra and James Brown, many of the most staid listeners bobbing their heads ecstatically while their minds roamed the outer reaches of the solar system. Space might be the place, but — the economy being what is — a $35 Medeski, Martin, and Wood set at Tonic is the closest many of us can get to it. Let's hope that Tonic's threatened closing turns out to be just another excuse to put on some really good concerts (though a monthly high-profile benefit/rent party would be a damn fine reason for MMW — or any of the big names Tonic has drawn lately — to come back sometime).

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