Review by Derek M. Brown
Photos by Jason Charme
John Medeski, Billy Martin and Chris Wood have built a career targeting one of the most universal pleasures of the human experience: the thrill of the unknown. Impossible to classify, Medeski, Martin & Wood (MMW) compose meticulous musical ensembles of diverse explorative jazz styles. The thrill of witnessing this in person is that of your first road trip with friends, a maiden roller coaster ride or the highs of traveling to a foreign land. You don’t quite know where you are headed or what lies around the corner, but you feel alive, and you know you like it. A concert that’s a voyage.
This past April, MMW sailed into the Rose City as part of an acoustic tour promoting their most recent album, Free Magic (acoustic is being used loosely here, the band still packed the punch of a state-of-the-art sound system and Wood’s electric bass). The Roseland Ballroom was the venue for an intimate evening between musicians and the dedicated MMW fanbase. The night was thrown an odd twist from the onset with a decision made for a seated show.
The band had already commenced “Wig Wise”, and was currently guiding the audience through an impressive improvised groove, all the while a chorus of “Do we really have to sit?” and prompt “shhhhs” continuously swelled and faded. The dark pit inside Roseland was closer to that of a chilly pewed cathedral than a warm, embracing dance party. However, what the environment lacked in ambiance was more than compensated for by the sheer expertise of MMW’s talents.
The vexation quickly dissolved into the first set as Billy Martin’s percussion assortments transported a fixated audience to a nightmarish land in “Ballade in C Minor ‘Vergessene Seelen’”. Simultaneously, Chris Wood scratched a bow across his upright bass emulating slinking cats and creeping fog. After exploring this scarred musical landscape for some time, John Medeski reached into the abyss with a rhythmic piano trance and steered the others onto a track of “Seven Deadlies” to close the set. The transition between these two distinct pieces was the highlight of the night and worth the price of boarding pass alone
After a short recess for collective breath-catching, the second set began as odd as the first one let off. Medeski returned from behind the curtains with a strange woodwind, I would later find out to be named the fujara. The Slovakian pipe instrument whispered its muddled tones as the band climbed back into the cockpit for expedition into another vibrant, funky cosmos. MMW slowly assembled in set two with sustained improvisation prior to “Doppler” and “Blue Pepper”. They followed with a personal favorite, “Where’s Sly?” off of the 1993 release “It’s a Jungle in Here”.
At this point it seemed as if the trip was nearing conclusion and we were just about to turn home for safe waters. But the setlist had one final wave before landing. Surely no one could have expected the band to close with a Graceland favorite, “Suspicious Minds” (unless you read Kara’s interview with Billy Martin on 4/17)! The evening closed with people smiling, John Medeski on melodica and some in the audience giving the finger to the seating chart and dancing stageside anyway. Beautiful.
The MMW trio kept me guessing all night long. With equal elements of Miles Davis and Frank Zappa, the diversity of directions the band can take you is extremely impressive. John Medeski, Billy Martin and Chris Wood are musicians in the truest sense of the word and I’m happy to have spent the evening with them.
Setlist: Roseland Theater, April 18, 2013
Set 1: Wig Wise, Open/Improv > Riffin’ Ed, Ballade In C Minor ‘Vergessene Seelen’ > Seven Deadlies
Set 2: “Wild Instrument Jam”*, Open Intro > Doppler, Blue Pepper, Where’s Sly?, Suspicious Minds; * with John on fujara; with Legalize It bassline near end of improvisation