Medeski Scofield Martin & Wood, The Vic Theater, Chicago, IL- 12/9
When you throw together three of the most forward-thinking jazz musicians of the last fifteen years into the studio with a guitar player whose rmncludes names such as Mingus and Davis, good things are bound to happen. So it was no surprise when Medeski Martin and Wood teamed up with John Scofield once again and released a worthy follow-up to the hybrid group’s 1998 stoner-jazz classic A Go Go. This time around, their collaborative fruits were realized in Out Louder, another fine offering for music-thinkers and jazz freaks alike.
On the road this winter in support of the disc, MSMW made a stop at Chicago’s Vic Theater, a famed, but rather worn little venue on the Windy City’s north side. The city was caked in ice and snow, but the Vic was sold-out, and warm with anticipation for the evening’s performance. After nearly eight years of digesting the group’s two albums, fans were buzzing for a chance to see the quartet live.
However, as good as the show was, it never seemed to live up to the player’s epic musical status or abilities, and the crowd was never fully in the swing of things. I wouldn’t be lying if I said that maybe even a few left disappointed. There was something vital missing from the performance, and perhaps that one thing was a lack of the avant-garde improvisation and spontaneity that both MMW and Scofield are known for. Simply put, the show seemed to be merely a live version of the group’s albums, and I think those in attendance were looking for a bit more.
The show’s two sets were comprised of a mixture of the MSMW’s two albums, and although the songs featured some extension and soloing, they were for the most part very structured and to-the-point. A Go Go’s “Hottentot” provided the evening’s most exploratory number, as MMW took a backseat and allowed Scofield to showcase his signature licks and grooves. At one point, John Medeski simply crossed his arms, leaned back, and watched Scofield go to work, an unusually relaxed posture for a man I once saw play the keys with his elbows out of what seemed to be complete musical fury.
Perhaps adding Scofield to the mix restricted the chemistry and exploration that MMW usually bring to the live stage, because it seemed at times they held back during a segue or transition. Drummer Billy Martin, who usually likes to fill any open or available space with flurries of percussion and noise (God-knows what he’s hitting with his sticks sometimes), reserved himself to only one, short solo interlude, and seemed happy to just be the evening’s metronome. In fact, all four musicians seemed to embrace the relaxed mood, and often times, smiles would make an appearance instead of that focused staring and nodding.
Out Louder cuts such as the playful “Little Walter Rides Again,” and the slow-creeping “Hanuman” also made appearances throughout the show, along with “Tequila and Chocolate,” a Latin-flavored number that featured some fine bass work by Chris Wood. John Lennon’s “Julia,” one of Out Louder’s two cover songs (the other being a funky rendition of Peter Tosh’s “Legalize It”), was a calm wind-down to the second set, but seemed as out of place during the show as it does on the album. Once again though, the group seemed to have no problem scaling down the bombast in favor of a more tranquil atmosphere.
Although this show may not have had the experimentation that normally comes about when MMW take the stage, it found the trio in unique artistic formplaying structured jazz. The resulting performance was satisfying, but maybe not mind-blowing. And perhaps that was the goal all along. Musicians certainly have various ways of scratching creative itches, and what better way than inviting a living legend to join you on the road for a string of relaxing, casual gigs. MSMW has given the jazz world two fine albums, and while fans may not be printing up “MSMW Destroy America” tour shirts anytime soon, perhaps their studio work is what will forever be remembered in jazz’s storied archives. Regardless, those who may have been looking for a bit more from the show may have gotten just that, because seeing these musicians performing their creative works onstage was almost like icing on the cake.