Martin Medeski and Wood Make Real Class and Musical Skill Appear Effortless

Eddie Rosenbaum/Staff

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Playing the Fillmore always seems like a night that bands will circle on their tour calendar, the kind of venue where everyone wants to put on their best show. Usually, they don't fail to make their extra effort obvious to the perennially eager Fillmore crowd. On Sunday night, progressive jazz trip Medeski Martin and Wood seemed to take the opposite approach, coolly mastering their instruments, emotion and audience in a no-nonsense, no-filler performance.

Before most of the packed house even knew they were on-stage, the trio launched into a crunchy funk tune. Bassist Chris Wood scratched his electric bass, replicating the formidable tearing sound of a guitar. John Medeski manned the keys like a machine gunner, swiveling 360 degrees in his turret of six large black keyboards. Triumphant keyboard runs rolled off his fingers, punctuated with the the band's synchronized crescendos. As the opening notes concluded, the band tiptoed into a dark psychedelia.

Scruffy drummer Billy Martin reached for his pile of assorted percussive tools, grabbing a handful of rainy chimes. Passing me in the crowd, a photographer remarked, "There's definitely gonna be a lot of people on drugs here." It's hard to come up with a better description of the subsequent distortion-filled, polyrhythmic jam.

Since their rise out of the New York Jazz scene in the mid-'90s, Medeski Martin and Wood have flourished just on the edge of the pop music world. Recording mostly for Blue Note Records, the former home of be-bop greats like Art Blakey and Dexter Gordon, their music has often seemed more at home in a rock venue, or even a discotheque, than a quiet jazz club. Nevertheless, their emphasis on rigorous instrumental improvisation, which they put on full display Sunday night, places them alongside any jazz groups of the last 20 years.

Each member of the trio makes the incredibly complex interplay seem utterly effortless. Even Medeski, moving deftly among his cache of keyboards, is consummately controlled. There's something just plain weird about seeing the physical source of such frenetic, muscular music looking so calm, especially when the audience is constantly going buck-wild. Sometimes their awesome musical intensity seemed to come too easily, undermining back and forth exchange of energy between band and audience that is usually a staple of a good concert.

The robust instrumental prowess of MMW seemed to work better on the more acoustic songs, where Martin switched to stand-up bass and Medeski's keyboard sounded like classic ivory. The sidewalk jazz of "Baby Let me Follow You Down" revolved around a lilting piano riff which allowed room for gaps, through which the shuffling drums and intricate basslines could easily be heard. On some of the more high-volume songs, the heavy bass threatened to dominate, and the songs felt claustrophobic.

MMW thrived when they were able to strike a balance between intensity and space. On "Amber Gris," another track off their recent three album Radiolarian series Medeski's surging riff seemed to dictate the reaction of the crowd, both of which built into repeated frenzies. The Frenchified accordion sound of "Amish Pintxos" showed another side of the multi-faceted trio.

Though they've never been in the Top 40, Medeski Martin and Wood's impressive following has shown that there are still some people out there who enjoy music that lacks catchy choruses or poppy guitar licks. In this way they're a throwback to the classic jazz era of the '50s and '60s, although their music has always seemed somehow futuristic. The ease with which they shift from mania to cool, from psychedelia to jazz, from tight rhythms to solos shows a musicianship that just isn't seen so much anymore. The Fillmore crowd's uniformly elated reaction to all of it seemed like a testament to the outdated concept that music in itself, without gaudy alter egos or slick marketing, can bring success.

Become a musical, futuristic throwback with Nick at [email protected]

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