Medeski, Martin and Wood Tap Into The Rising Taste For Experimentalism.
By Dave McElfresh
APRIL 12, 1999: FOR THE MOST part, solid jazz doesn't sell worth a damn, nor create enough interest to fill a 100-seat bar nearly anywhere across the country. But sometimes jazz gets lucky: non-jazzers are occasionally impressed by something meaty (as opposed to the pop pap prostituting itself in the name of the j word) and line up for albums and tickets. It happened in the '40s when Duke Ellington and Count Basie seduced the dance crowd, in the '50s when Dave Brubeck's cool jazz impressed the heady, horn-rimmed bunch, and in the '60s when an electrified Miles Davis floored hippies who came to the Fillmore to see the headlining psychedelic groups.
And it's happening again. Throughout the '90s, a handful of jazz experimentalists--like the ultra-colorful keyboard/bass/drum trio of Medeski, Martin & Wood--are surprisingly popular, selling far more albums than even many traditional jazz artists. Oddly, the trio is driven by John Medeski's Hammond B-3 organ, an instrument terribly unpopular since the early '60s. So who made this band a name act long before the jazz crowd caught on?
Drummer Billy Martin's New Orleans-based backbeat style has fueled Medeski's keyboards and Chris Woods' bass through seven albums of quirky funk jazz. Onstage, he's seen a variety of fan types, with almost all of them far younger than the average jazz fan.
"It seems like the biggest faction is the college audience--a liberal, white, hippie kind of thing," Martin believes. "That group has been very supportive of jazz in America for a long time. I look at these 30-year-old photographs of New Orleans jazz festivals and I see a predominantly white, young, college-age audience, people still developing, still absorbing so much. And I listen to the college radio stations now and the variety of music they play is really amazing."
Much of the audience, though, is made up of smaller, but no less specific subsets of fans. "We're supportive of this whole taper culture, where kids are allowed to record our shows and trade them with each other, so it ends up trickling down to high school kids. Also, we played with Phish in New Orleans, a band that has a huge fan base, and their followers started talking about us. Even punk rockers and ravers come around--all these different categories, which helps us not have to rely on commercial advertising. I wish we had a broader funk fan base, but I think what we've got is great."
Sales are good for Combustication, the band's newest and most textured release, where the organ switches from the churchy feel of "Everyday People" to create the hallucinatory soundtrack entitled "Church of Logic," and the depiction of Hawaii-on-downers, "No Ke Ano Ahiahi." The disc is being snatched up by yet two more sizeable CD-buying crowds: retro-swing fans and the acid jazz bunch. Says Martin, "It's time for swing to return. Everybody is looking back 30, 40 years because of the affinity people have for dance music."
The '90s dance phenomenon known as acid jazz may not be jazz, but it samples enough of the '50s/'60s classics to merit the association. Martin believes acid jazz represents the current dance crowd wanting music less techno. "Instead of listening to drum machines and synthesizers for dancing, a lot of young kids are inspired by DJs who found something cool to spin by going to old record stores. And the organ-based jazz they found is great, soulful music, rooted in gospel."
Just as Medeski, Martin & Wood is not a swing band, acid jazz fans mistakenly group them in with their style. "I guess there's a similar kind of attraction," Martin admits. "We're also jazzy and danceable, but before acid jazz was even a term, we were playing that kind of music. John and Chris were already laying swinging lines over funky grooves I was coming up with. Then acid jazz came along and all the promoters started billing us as that, because it was kind of the hip thing at the time. But it was attracting a lot of people, so in a way it was cool."
Their greasy funk also caught the attention of major jazz guitarist John Scofield, whose similar love of soul-heavy bands from the Meters to the Funkadelics led him to use the trio as his band on last year's A Go Go album. MM&W had hit the big time. "That was great fun," Martin recalls. "The writing was simple, and Scofield's a great guitarist who's easy to work with. His playing fits right in with the groove of our things."
Natch, the adventurous trio chooses to screw with their uncanny fortune in attracting fans. For starters, don't go to one of their shows expecting them to upchuck favorite album cuts like other bands do.
"What's on our records is stuff that just happened naturally and we got it on tape," says the drummer. "What you'll hear in concert is the spirit of those cuts, but we're really improvising. We remain aware of some of the things that we played on the record and how we did it, but we don't perform note for note because it wouldn't be jazz. But when you hear the live show you'll recognize something from a tune you remember, then we move on to something else."
Further pressing their luck, the first half of their shows now presents them in a different format than that which made them popular. "The first set is just going to be a bare essentials acoustic piano trio," says Martin. "We've been doing it here in New York for two weeks' worth of gigs at small clubs with only 100, 150 people a night, in small rooms with no PA. It's been great, so we're going to share that side of us. Then DJ Logic, who's on Combustication, will join us for a second set of what we're better known for playing."
For most jazz bands, going acoustic would be taking the conservative route. But Medeski, Martin & Wood will be feeding it to Phish fans, most of whom have never heard a set of stripped-down, basic jazz before. "The acoustic music will definitely pull the audience deeper into jazz," Martin believes. "We have a lot to say on that level. I'm hoping our subtleties and nuances will come across on a big stage. We'll see."
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