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Published: 2006/04/26
by Jesse Jarnow

Medeski Martin & Wood, Society For Ethical Culture, NYC- 4/6

NYC ROLL-TOP: The Humanists’ Ball

En route across town we got stuck in rush hour traffic near Central Park. We hopped out of the cab and walked west, into the green. Despite the warm weather, it was nearly deserted. The only people about were New York caricatures, jogging in garish outfits or walking hilarious dogs, all of us extras in a Woody Allen movie. Near the Sheep Meadow, the midtown skyline placid in the blue dusk, the light was transporting. Beyond the treeline lay the city that runs seemingly unchanging beneath the ever-shifting storefronts, advertisements, and neon. I might as well have been 12, visiting from Long Island.

On the other side of the park, the Society For Ethical Culture awaited us, the turn-of-the-century humanists’ organization that run schools, drawing classes, book clubs, lectures, and concerts. Their concert hall, where New York jazz favorites Medeski Martin and Wood performed on April 11th, felt part of that sturdy New York. A meeting hall painted with muted tones, the curtainless stage was xx by long, wooden pews. The music Medeski, Martin, and Wood made, most of the time, seemed as if could’ve been created any time since Kind of Blue, and might’ve been discovered in a musty vinyl shop in the West Village. Give or take the band’s unquestionably unique approach, they are fierce traditionalists, at least in the know-your-craft way they go about making music.

The trio’s two sets went a more song-oriented route than their occasional avant-heavy acoustic gigs at the downtown jazz club Tonic. Only John Medeski, confined to a baby grand piano, was any more acoustic than usual, Chris Wood happy to play his electric bass. They built into their performance gradually with an open improv, drummer Billy Martin slowly moving around his array of percussion until Medeski and Wood found a slinky groove. Finally settling at his kit, the band slid into a blues. After a bowed bass solo, Medeski phrased and rephrased two notes over and over again, working them into a clock-like pattern, eventually blossoming into Lee Morgan’s gospel-like "Afrique."

During the second set, Medeski played prepared piano, attaching clips to the instrument’s strings. Shortly thereafter, the band entered a long improv based around Martin’s work on the thumb piano. All of Martin’s melodic contraptions, which also included a balofon, sounded warm and bright in the room. Medeski and Wood picked up on Martin’s repeating pattern, turning it over with a seemingly infinite stream of permutations: singular notes, counterpoints, rhythmic fills, thread-like throughlines.

The reasons to see Medeski, Martin, and Wood rarely involve the decade-and-a-half old vets’ songs. Where their electric shows (signified mainly by Medeski’s organ and Wurlitzer) are for nuanced dance music, their acoustic gigs are more fit for more considered musical conversation. The Hammerstein Ballroom, site of the trio’s annual Halloween performances, seemed worlds away, the difference between the vaudeville shows once hosted at the Hammerstein and the humanist lectures held simultaneously at Society For Ethical Culture. And while some seemed to show up for the former, it would hardly befit a humanist to turn them away. They’re New Yorkers, too.

Jesse Jarnow blogs at

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