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Published: 2012/12/28
by Sam Robertson

Medeski Martin & Wood, Blue Note, NYC – 12/12

Photo by Dino Perrucci

Celebrating their 20th anniversary, Medeski Martin & Wood took over Greenwich Village’s Blue Note jazz club, playing six straight nights with a variety of special guests. The second night of the run found Nels Cline of Wilco sitting in, a collaboration that felt long overdue. Cline, who was well established as an experimental jazz guitarist before joining Wilco, shares the same thirst for creativity and spontaneous improvisation that drives Medeski Martin & Wood. It’s almost a wonder that their paths had never crossed before given their shared musical vocabulary. And, because of that shared vocabulary, the four musicians were able to step on stage and simply jam as if they had been playing together for years.

From their first notes together, Cline was prominent and perfectly in sync, trading ideas back and forth with Medeski. After plenty of exploratory jamming to start, they settled into a loose reading of Cline’s “Floored.” With Wood and Martin setting a funky base, Cline’s searing solo and crazed effects led the band into heavenly dissonance, with jagged bursts of psychedelic noise from his guitar darting in and out of a Martin drum solo. Things continued to heat up as Chris Wood traded his upright bass for an electric, and used a slide and bevy of effects during a solo, suddenly sounding like Duane Allman. The musicians all traded solos, with Cline’s razor sharp shredding followed by a patient, slowly building organ solo from Medeski, who manages to tell parts of a story with each key his fingers glide over. As Medeski’s solo gradually picked up intensity, Nels threw in bouncy R&B riffs before stretching the music into weirder territory, leaning over his guitar like a mad scientist while fiddling with cables and pedals.

As Chris Wood dropped into the familiar street groove of “Night Marchers,” the band shuffled into line behind him, before suddenly veering off into Billy Martin led weirdness, as the drummer mimicked bird cries with his percussion toys. A final jam found the four diving into rock flavored free jazz territory, with cosmic playing not all that far off from a 1973 “Dark Star.” Though most musicians might feel too intimidated to interrupt the intense telepathic musical connection between Medeski Martin & Wood, a musician of Cline’s caliber was comfortable not only hanging in with them but also leading the music and injecting his own freshness.

One might expect a 20th anniversary celebration to feel like a nostalgia trip through the past, but Medeski, Martin & Wood refuse to look back on their music, instead pushing boundaries to create something truly new every night. And with Cline sitting in, the music certainly felt as original and spontaneous as ever. But it’s the boundless creativity that Medeski Martin & Wood inspire in each other that has always fueled the band, and perhaps what’s more exciting than their accomplishments over the past twenty year is all the new musical spaces they’ve yet to explore.

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