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The iJamming! Weekly Download: Medeski Martin and Wood


It had been a long time coming, but last Sunday, September 28, I finally got to see Medeski Martin and Wood in concert, when they performed a benefit at our beautiful (sounding and looking) local Bearsville Theater. The trio, who formed in Boston, came to prominence in Brooklyn and have now developed strong ties around Woodstock, are known for their remarkable individual talents and collective improvisational abilities which, in our neck of the woods at least, makes them home town favorites among the jam band set. (Professional quality home-taping microphones were on prominently display throughout the audience.) But that’s only one aspect of their appeal: at different times in the set, the trio play avant-jazz, trip-hop, ambient electronica, and full-on R&B. Though song titles are left unsaid, that was almost certainly an instrumental cover of the classic Ray Charles anthem “What’d I Say” on which John Medeski’s Hammond B-3 skills were simply astonishing.
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Medeski is well-known as a master of vintage keyboards: his set-up also includes a Wurlitzer, a Fender Rhodes, an old analogue synth that I believe to be a Moog, and much more besides. Chris Wood plays both electric and double bass, frequently exploring the top end of both instruments. And drummer Billy Martin does a remarkable job of keeping the various (and often complex) rhythms in place, even as he spins round from his kit to rampage through the assorted percussion instruments he keeps on a table behind him. I’m not a fan of jam bands/noodling/progressive rock, but MMW supersede these generic reference points; after all, if there’s any form of music that invites improvisation and rewards technique, it’s the jazz world from which they emerged.

Besides, MMW have, despite considerable commercial success over the years, kept their feet very much on the ground, their hearts in the right place. A couple of years ago, after what must surely have been profitable relationships with Ryko and Blue Note, the group established their own record label, Indirecto. On their web site, Medeski explains the decision as follows:

“In the history of man, recorded music is just a blink of the eye, just a small part of that vast history. The real thing is playing music live, and that is what we do. Beyond that, we’ll be putting out recordings as often or as infrequently as we want.”

This past summer, while I was off in the UK, the trio, who have made regular appearances at the pre-eminent local festival Mountain Jam, launched Camp MMW, a week-long workshop for 80 “students” who wished to receive hands-on training. The event took place a full miles from us, at the Full Moon Resort not far from us, one of many that very much needs the business in this beautiful part of the world given the shift in tourist habits over recent decades. Though the $1750 cost was surely beyond the budget of your average fan, it looks like dedicated campers could have gotten their money’s worth.

A typical day at Camp MMW begins with a buffet breakfast with your fellow “campers”, and the band, from 8AM to 9AM, followed by a Master Class/Seminar with MMW at 9:30AM. At Noon, you’ll break for a buffet lunch, from 12:15 to 1:15PM, followed by some free time until 2:45, when everyone breaks up into groups for workshops with individual band members and special guests. At 6:00, everyone gathers for a seated dinner, followed by the evening’s event, which might be a performance and jam sessions, or a film and discussion, a bonfire, a dance party, or who knows what!

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Finally, for now, this show was a benefit for the Black Mesa Trust, a charity established to protect Arizona State’s native Hopi people’s water supply from the rapacious mining of the Peabody Western Coal Company:

“the mining company pumps 3.3 million gallons of pure groundwater from the aquifer to mix with crushed coal, which is then slurried to Laughlin, Nevada, 273 miles away, to feed the Mohave Generating Station. The poisoned water is neither reclaimed nor reused.”

The Hopi people won a battle in 2005, when the coal slurry was closed down, but they may not have won the war. The government Office of Surface Mining “is moving full steam ahead with approving the resuming of mining on the Black Mesa leasehold.” As the organization’s web site clarifies under the heading Our Hopi Beliefs:

We believe Black Mesa represents the earth center, Tuuwanasave’e. Underneath lies untold wealth. We believe the aquifers breathe. They breathe in the rain and snow and breathe out in the form of springs. The springs are breathing holes — passageways to Paatuuwaqatsi (the water world). Over 30 years of groundwater pumping by Peabody has weakened the water pressure and weakened the aquifer’s breathing, causing many of our springs and washes to dry up. We believe it is time for everyone, especially the indigenous peoples of Black Mesa, to unite in defense of our sacred waters.

I have limited knowledge of Native American affairs, but what I have seen at Black Rock in Nevada, where Burning Man is hosted as a “leave-no-trace” event, with the support of local tribes, has had a profound effect on my view of America’s vast natural beauty, and the importance of preserving it for our children. Anyway, MMW brought in one of the organizers of the Black Mesa Trust, who talked and sang and played guitar, all in an intimate manner. So while it’s hard for any of us, not just from a time perspective but from a financial one right now, to support the many organizations we would like to, but the fact that MMW have found a cause they believe in, and are willing to bring it to the east coast, does not go unappreciated or unnoticed.

The Hammond B-3 organ. Like the Gibson Les Paul and the Technic 1200s, a musical icon.

As you would hope for or expect from a group with these principles, MMW have used their web site to offer up a free download from their new album, Radiolarians 1, released on September 30. “Free Lily,” which I recognize from early in their Bearsville set is, as much as the statement can be made, typical of the trio’s ouvre, a funky, thoroughly contemporary R&B/ jazz jam, with prominent use of that Hammond B-3. Stream it or download it

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Discussion

5 Comment(s)

  1. Tom Ferrie

    6 October, 2008 at 4:17 pm

    Tony,

    Like you, I am not a big fan of “jam bands/noodling/prog rock,” but I have to agree with you that MMW does it right and much of that has to do with, as you said, their background in Jazz. My wife was their booking agent way back when they were playing jazz clubs, and she started booking them in rock clubs at a time when “Dave” was becoming a sensation and Phish were noodling around. That crowd picked up on their talent and things haven’t been the same since. MMW are great musicians and, in my opinion are the best at what they do. Great review.

    By the way, your song by song review of the Stone Pony James show was great too, I bought the new record immediately after reading it and am very satisfied. Keep on with the music reviews old man. Hope to see you soon.

  2. 7 October, 2008 at 9:46 am

    Thanks Tom

    As much for the comment on James as MMW. That’s at least two people I know bought Hey Ma on my recommendation! I freaked out that nobody would EVERread all the way through that review so am comforted by the fact that some people are on shore leave. See you soon!

    Tony

  3. dave wibberley

    9 October, 2008 at 4:25 am

    Tony

    Here I am sat in the library at Univ of Herts: where I start today to deliver a one day a week, 7 week long, module on ‘the history of popular music’. They just called out of the blue 2 weeks ago and as is my way I thought “why not”.

    My first lecture is based on the docu: ‘Once upon a Time in NYC’ which brilliantly condenses pop creativity in NYC during the 70s. Disco, Punk, Hip Hop. And it will set the tone for the other 6 weeks.

    I am searching for some reference stuff to direct the students towards and a random Google search brought up your blog. Cool!

    Having been burnt by the SonyBMG merger I have been managing for the past 4 years. Its ridiculously hard and I do feel that I can finally see the wall at the end of the tunnel, but one is always left with the sense that with just one more push……..

    My latest artist The King Blues are prime Jamming material. 3 guys from a Hackney squat, the singer was full time homeless from 14 to 22, committed and active in anarchy / oppositional politics, indebted to The Clash and The Pogues, I got them signed to Island and their first single ‘My Boulder’ has gone straight onto the Radio One playlist and things feel good. Like I said….one last push! My other artist is David Ford. From Eastbourne but mainly working in the States. He is playing NYC Mercury Lounge in a few weeks.

    Has your NYC book come out yet. It sounds like essential reading.

    Good to see we are both still at it. Fuckin’ dreamers!

    Dave Wibberley

  4. 9 October, 2008 at 10:07 am

    Hi Dave

    How great to hear from you. Again. Like, every 5 years or something. Glad to see you’re still at it. Fuckin’ dreamers indeed – couldn’t put it better.
    I’m onto the final chapter of my book, which links those 3 movements together as per the BBC documentary. I couldn’t take 5 years on a book and not expect a TV company to have some of the same ideas in the meantime but given that my book starts in the 20s, I’m obviously not too bothered.
    The BBC documentary was okay. The Beeb skimps a lot on these things, some of the stock footage for example relates very badly to the story being told over the top of it. Far far far better was the VH1 1977: A Year In Hell, which took much the same idea but focused in on the one monumental year in music, in New York. (But there was enormous back story in there.) VH1 absolutely excelled themselves. They spent a lot of money brushing up the anecdotes with visuals (they turned the DJbattle between Casanova Fly and Afrika Bambaataa into a comic strip) and went way beyond the “usual suspects” and interviewed everyone from Mayor Ed Koch to Geraldo Rivera, police heads, author JOnathan Mahler. For a music cable station to get this serious about culture as a whole, as opposed to just ephemeral pop culture, was a major statement. See if you can get hold of it. I have an NTSC DVD.

    Anyway, wish I could be there with you. Hopefully, if you do the course a gain in a year’s time, you’ll have my book to help you out!

    Take care and post in the Pub as well if you get time

    Tony

  5. 14 November, 2008 at 3:32 pm

    It’s always a good thing when a band leaves a major record label and starts out on their own path, which hopefully lets them record as much music as they want. The quote you have from Medeski above about this “freedom” is awesome.

    Also, you should check out a story in a multimedia magazine called FLYP about MMW, which is basically all about their decision to break from the pack. See it here: http://www.flypmedia.com/issues/17/#8/1

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