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.
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!
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.
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