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Although they're signed to the venerable jazz label Blue Note and have a name that sounds like a law firm, Medeski, Martin, and Wood are not your father's idea of jazz. They're more likely your Beastie Boys-loving, younger sister's kind of thing.
Still, they are pretty much a jazz band in attack and approach, which lends them respectability and got them a gig backing jazz legend John Scofield on his album A Go Go. But MMW's rambunctiousness and their virtuosity as musicians put them way out in front of the Beasties as instrumentalists, and their freewheeling grooves place them outside of contemporary jazz's relatively staid company. Partial to the freeform instrumental funk that Jimmy Smith, Grant Green, and the Meters have doled out over the years, this trio of organ, bass, and drums is a groove machine that offers braininess plus the inspiration for some heavy-duty booty-shaking.
And with the addition of DJ Logic spinning records on a handful of tracks and a spoken-word piece laid on top of one instrumental jam, MMW's latest album, Combustication, displays their ability to expand their sound. Though the record debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard jazz charts after its August 11 release, the band refuses to be pigeonholed and is unwilling to play by jazz rules.
Since the beginning the group's members -- bassist Chris Wood, keyboardist John Medeski, and drummer Billy Martin -- have stepped outside of the boundaries of jazz while following the example set by indie-rock bands. MMW released their first record, Notes From the Underground, in 1991, then climbed into a van (later upgraded to an RV) and drove from club to club, impressing freethinking rock audiences who considered the band something of an underground phenomenon. This strategy stemmed from the band's dislike of the traditional jazz scene.
"It was pretty natural," Wood says. "Jazz clubs are overpriced, and they expect a certain type of thing. They have drink minimums, and you can't have an all-ages show at most jazz clubs. It's a little uptight for us. We love jazz, and we're influenced by it, but the clubs that represent that music represent a certain type of jazz; they are more traditional-orientated.
"We went out, and, although we're playing instrumental music, which -- whether it is accurate or not -- gets put in the jazz section [at record stores], we played at rock clubs. There is more openness in those clubs than in jazz clubs. There's not so much of an expectation of what's going to happen. You're freer to create the night as you want."
Getting gigs at coffeehouses and small rock venues, MMW appealed to more adventurous club bookers who realized the band was doing something arty but not too intellectual. The group's next three albums -- Friday Afternoon in the Universe (1994), It's a Jungle in Here (1995), and Shack-man (1996) -- were released on the Grammavision label. All three are funk-inspired, and Shack-man in particular displays world beat influences as well.
During the early '90s, when grunge was king and alternative rock bands were heading for big clubs and arenas, the smaller venues were emptying. Filling the void for those still into non-mainstream music were bands like Minnesota's Low, Britain's pseudo-Krautrockers Stereolab, and dub aficionados Tortoise. MMW have more in common with these bands than they do, say, with fellow postbopper saxophonist Joshua Redman, who's followed a more traditional path. MMW combine the avant-garde weirdness of John Zorn with the accessibility of white funk. In fact part of their appeal is that, unlike most jazz groups, MMW are three white guys. While they certainly don't owe their success to the color of their skins, a funky, white trio is something, for better or worse, that even the H.O.R.D.E. crowd can digest.
Conventional or not, jazz demands that its players know the basics while being able to improvise. After eight years together, the group is an especially tight unit whose members play off of each other without a hitch. But Wood insists the band was that way from from the start. "When we first played together," he says, "we knew that we had a great chemistry, and it felt like we should always be playing music together."
Not surprisingly, each member of the trio received a formal music education. But their interest in experimentation and disdain for "serious" music are what brought them together. The Kentucky-born, Fort Lauderdale-raised Medeski decided in 1984, after one year as a classical-music major at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, that the sober-minded instruction wasn't for him. So he switched to the jazz program, which requires just as high a degree of proficiency but allows players to exert more creativity. He gigged around Boston for a while, then moved to New York City in 1990 where he was drawn immediately to the "downtown" jazz scene. He later toured with John Zorn and the Lounge Lizards, among others.
Martin started out in New York, studying at Juilliard and the Manhattan School of Music in the early '80s. Experimentation led him also to New York's eccentric jazz scene, where he performed with Bob Moses, Bill Frisell, and Jaco Pastorius. In 1987 he joined up with Chuck Mangione and two years later returned to New York. The youngster of the group, Wood also attended the New England Conservatory for just a year, then decided to become a part-time student and perform in Boston as a jazz sideman. That's where he met up with Medeski, and they joined Moses for a tour of Israel in 1990. Moses introduced Medeski and Wood to Martin, and MMW was born.