Medeski, Martin and Wood have built an improbable following of dyed-in-the-wool jazz fans, hip acid jazz kids and (go figure) the loyal legions of Phish. Now a bold, revisionist organ trio with Chris Wood’s upright bass taking the traditional electric guitar role and a wide array of non-traditional sources — from New Orleans second-line rhythms to hard-hitting funk — supplanting the usual greasy sanctified sounds, the band’s auspicious debut revealed a piano trio (although various tracks employ horn players).
Drummer Billy Martin (who’s worked with John Lurie and Ned Rothenberg) injects copious backbeat accents, propulsive fills and generally funks up the proceedings, while Wood (who’s served with Marc Ribot, Elliott Sharp and the new music ensemble Rough Assemblage) exploits his fat, woody tone to deliver furious ostinatos, gorgeously tensile solo statements and anchor the adventurous musings of pianist John Medeski, a veteran of the Either/Orchestra and groups led by John Zorn, Oren Bloedow and David Byrne. Whether deconstructing Duke Ellington’s “Caravan” with a chunky, rollicking groove, exploring accessibly free terrain on an original such as “Querencia” or sculpting fat acoustic funk on “Uncle Chubb,” Notes From the Underground established Medeski, Martin and Wood as a distinctive if somewhat unfocused entity.
In order to accommodate the trio’s desire to tour incessantly (most clubs don’t have a decent piano and they’re a bitch to lug around), Medeski switched to a Hammond B-3 and a Wurlitzer. The charged-up sounds that emerge on the group’s second album, It’s a Jungle in Here, prove the new instrumentation perfectly suited to the trio’s highly rhythmic concept. Most organ trios rely on foot pedals for basslines, but Medeski, Martin and Wood have the flexible bottom of Wood, which — in concert with Martin’s increasingly complex but still funky playing — elevates the music well above mere organ grinding. The trio’s stylistic tendencies are more expansive as well. A medley of Thelonious Monk’s “Bemsha Swing” and Bob Marley’s “Lively Up Yourself” eschews the pairing’s potential novelty factor in favor of focusing on the rhythmic overlap. With equal acuity, the trio transports King Sunny Ad‚’s “Moti Mo” into a languorous sprawl cleverly accented by Soweto Township-like horns, summons the spirit of the Meters on “Wiggly’s Way” and burns down the joint on the scorching “Beeah.”
Emboldened by incendiary gigs, the group undertook a healthy measure of experimentation on Friday Afternoon in the Universe, which complements the expected funk with Medeski’s Sun Ra-inspired keyboard flights. Short, rough-hewn vignettes like “Paper Bass” and “Tea” are pure improvisation, instantaneous explorations building into massive, irresistible grooves. On other tunes, the heavy wah-wah organ and clavinet machinations of ’70s-era Herbie Hancock and Miles Davis ride atop streamlined rhythmic beds, combining a shivering spaciness with sober, economic undergirding. The trio’s boundless energy and loud attack has naturally attracted plenty of rock fans, many of them following the recommendation of Phish in the group’s fan newsletter. Without compromise, Medeski, Martin and Wood have crafted a delirious amalgam of sounds and styles with surprisingly broad appeal, while at the same time taking bolder chances with each new album.
Medeski’s collaboration with guitarist David Fiuczynski, who’s worked with Me’Shell Ndegéocello and various Black Rock Coalition groups, delivers a slicker, more contemporary blend of funk, hip-hop, rock and blaring ’70s jazz fusion. Fiuczynski’s extroverted playing exploits loads of post-metal effects, but the album’s terrific knack for devising danceable yet intelligent rhythmic patterns (courtesy of drummers Gene Lake and Jojo Mayer) offsets the potential for snoozy heroics. Outside of his band, Medeski gets to explore less restrained playing, masterfully serving up huge slabs of sound by way of piercing clusters, lightning-fast runs, groovy wah-wah vamps and dense, textured soundscapes. The eccentric vocals by Michelle Johnson and Gloria Tropp tend to be a little overindulgent, but it’s not bad for a modern fusion album, and it provides a different context in which to appreciate Medeski’s vast talents.