Medeski Martin & Wood – Radiolarians II

mmw

Medeski Martin & Wood – Radiolarians II (Indirecto Records; released April 14th, 2009)

I’ve seen Medeski Martin & Wood live more times than I care to mention; as part of my dubious past in the “jam band” scene I can say they’re one of the few bands I still listen to on a regular basis. Having been almost a decade removed from the michigoss of endless (and pointless) guitar noodling, I sit here listening to their newest release and wonder, “how did a three-piece jazz outfit get mixed up in the hippie festival circuit?” The answers, sadly, are all part of a worldwide conspiracy against jazz- a harsh indictment of the music industry as well as casual fans of the genre. In a broad, sweeping and somewhat dismissive statement: no one listens to new jazz anymore and the people that consider themselves fans listen to that watered-down “smooth jazz” crap from Kenny G and Dave Koz; an inauthentic muzak rendering of the classics.

I’m going to outline two narratives in this essay; one- the actual review of Medeski Martin & Wood‘s Radiolarians II and the second; how jazz was ruined by “smoothing” it out a la the lack of compelling new music and an over-reliance on instrumental cover versions of pop songs.

MMW was at one time signed to legendary Blue Note Records, the first name in hard bop and avant-garde jazz; in fact, the label has been at the forefront of experimental jazz since jazz began experimenting with itself- 1939 to be exact. So the pairing of MMW and Blue Note from 1998 to 2005 is as natural as it gets, releasing their magnum opus The Dropper in 2000 as well as another “must-have”; Combustication released two years prior. Other essentials; the collaboration with guitarist John Scofield on A Go Go (Verve Records) in 1998 and Shack-Man from 1996.

Actually, I’d say it’s all essential- seventeen years down the line there are very few experimental jazz trios that have the scope and influence that MMW garners today; being as forward thinking and progressive as they are, it’s no wonder the majority of so-called jazz aficionados gloss over their work. Their work has an unclassifiability to it as much as it could be labelled straight jazz, borrowing from different genres; a touch of funk here, some hip-hop there, airy ambient textures, repetitive droning, a cacophony of freak-outs, space rock, etc. yet still sticking to time-honored formulas; thanks to the amazing drumming of Billy Martin it has that patented “swing” and polyrhythms all over, John Medeski‘s excellent piano/keys/organ work is full of sleight of hand improvisational techniques, not to mention Chris Wood‘s phenomenal bass playing (upright, fretless or electric), which adds an air of sophistication- a perfect marriage that bridges the gap between the backbeat to the melody. In short, there’s only just a handful (literally) of “true” jazz still being made with its original spirit attached, and MMW is at the forefront.

What makes this band and the three-part Radiolarians series so interesting is the idea of said project; starting all these tracks “live”, as in; all the compositions were worked out on-stage from improvs, then taken into the studio before getting re-worked into recorded pieces. That’s a great idea- not quite a live album, not quite a studio album; all three musicians get to try out their ideas live, figure out what’s working during the set then record it later. Instead of the age-old “write->record->tour” formula, they’ve flipped it backwards. If more bands shifted their focus from recording albums to playing their hearts out while on-stage; I’m sure they’d be more satisfied with the relationship between performer and audience- and this is the reason why MMW plays most of their shows to the jam band circuit, who might just be the last audience that still really cares about live music; going so far as to keep detailed setlists, make high-quality recordings of shows, actively trade CD-Rs of said shows, etc. If you’re gonna dis the jam band crowd, dis their awful clothes, terrible smells and Widespread Panic; but never that “sense” of community; if there’s one thing hippies can do, it’s “network” the shit out of their scene.

European jazz crowds aside (they still care about jazz, deeply) I’m going to get off my tangent and get into the record: it’s got hooks and riffs all over it; the album opens with said heavy riffage from Wood‘s bass (on Flat Tires), funky drumming (Junkyard hearkens back to Combustication-style MMW, Amish Pintxos is as funky a wet towel under the bed for three weeks), classic piano-driven lounge (Padrecito & Riffin’ Ed), noise freaking and horror-movie synths (ijiji), techno-esque textures with crazy sampling (Chasen vs Suribachi), blues-driven squonk (Baby Let Me Follow You Down); it’s a jazz album that experiments as much with sonic ambiance, pop structures, conventional ideas about rhythm and melody as it does with the listener’s ears.

But people don’t want “experimentation”, and they sure as hell don’t want jazz. Jazz may be the last refuge for people like myself who’ve grown insanely bored with mainstream music or music that confines itself to traditional pop structure ( I use “pop” here as short for “popular”, meaning all music made after World War II, not “pop” as in American Idol-type crap). I was almost desperate looking for a way out of those confines; if there’s any victory I can claim for all those years of tie-dye and corduroy, it’s that I became open to jazz, or at least the idea of it. I think what got me hooked on jazz was delivering pizzas in the rain (thank you WRTI 90.1, Temple University’s jazz channel). For some reason I’ve always associated the sonance of gently falling rain with the easy rat-a-tat of 16th notes on a hi-hat; and the reflection of headlights and neon in a wet-black street seems to go right against sax and trumpet, as well as mud-stained sidewalks, concentric circles in puddles, the image of urban detritus melting into sewers underneath the city- carrying the murk down, down, like a fretless bass line.

Nothing is better to listen to on a rainy night than jazz, I’m not even going to allow any argument for this fact.

So, in closing; MMW‘s Radiolarians II is a fully realized and accomplished album- if you like your beats funky, like your bass chunky and your Hammond B3 lines to melt your brain; get this album. We need more jazz fans in this world…

Tracklisting:

  1. Flat Tires
  2. Junkyard
  3. Padirecto
  4. ijiji
  5. Riffin’ Ed
  6. Amber Gris
  7. Chasen vs Suribachi
  8. Dollar Pants
  9. Amish Pinxtos
  10. Baby, Let Me Follow You Down

Medeski Martin & Wood