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Beyond Jazz

Medeski, Martin & Wood go where no jazz has gone before



For the uninitiated, the music of Medeski Martin and Wood is difficult to describe. All three members of the band (John Medeski on keyboards, Billy Martin on drums and Chris Wood on bass) are accomplished musicians and well-versed in classic jazz. Yet their vocal-free music transcends those traditional boundaries.

They are a jazz trio for sure. But within those grooves of jazz also lie some swing beats, a bit of funk, reggae, soul, blues and hip-hop. The marriage of these different styles has resulted in a sound unique on the contemporary musical spectrum. MMW are one of those bands who are loose and tight at the same time, always willing to step out on a ledge, yet always in control.

Due to endless touring and word of mouth, Medeski Martin and Wood no longer just sound like the name of a law firm. They have earned the reputation as one of the best live shows around, and because Medeski occasionally jams with Phish guitarist Trey Anastasio, they have carved out a place and reputation for themselves in the world of jam bands. Phishheads, understandably, are now a huge part of their following.

At the same time, the trio remains true to the spirit of jazz and has thus managed to capture the attention and loyalties of serious jazz fans who also appreciate their work.

MMW will kick off a Western tour next week, beginning with two shows up in Denver and ending at Jazz Fest in New Orleans. Drummer Billy Martin shared some insights with the Indy from his home before hitting the road.

Indy: You guys have become famous for your live shows; no two are ever alike. You play some pretty long cuts, but there is always flow. Is most of that improvisation or practice?

Martin: Practicing and performing are very similar. We use the same approach. But, basically, we get on stage and have a conversation with music. It's our vocabulary. We listen to each other and react. It is how we speak but it comes out through our instruments. It takes practice and discipline to get to that level, though, so we work on it a lot. We give it 100 percent every time we play. We're very serious.

Indy: You have one of the most diverse audiences I've ever seen. Did you set out to cultivate a certain fan base?

Martin: If anything, we set out to reach everybody. And we've pretty much succeeded. I think the music brings people together, particularly our kind of music. There are so many influences that I think it strikes a diverse chord, especially with young people. We just try to react with what's happening [in music] and incorporate different elements. The spirit of jazz is always in our music, but at the same time, we're open to anything.

Indy: What do you think about the current state of jazz and its future?

Martin: As a category, it is kind of sad. It's marketed very narrowly. Especially on radio. There's the Kenny G. stuff, and there is the regurgitated stuff. The only place you get to hear really cool jazz, both innovative and the classics, is the college stations. Basically, it has become another four-letter word to describe something that people are not sure what it is.

Indy: Did you always want to be a musician?

Martin: No. Until I was about 11, I wanted to be a marine biologist and live on a boat. But then one day, my brother's old drum kit appeared, so I started playing it. That's when I really began studying drums. My dad got me a good teacher and, for the first time, I actually felt like I was learning something. I loved it. By high school I very much knew what I was going to do.

Indy: I've noticed that you also draw. You've done the artwork for several of your disc covers.

Martin: Yeah. Like my music, it's a way of expressing myself. It comes from the same place. When I play the drums, it comes out in the music; when I draw, it comes out on the page. I guess there are parallels.

Indy: What's the future of MMW?

Martin: I see it evolving, but really, it's an unknown. You just go with it, like your life. You can't really predict or set what is going to happen. But I have a good feeling that this band will be working together for a long time. We have great chemistry. It's like family. Even when we go out and do our solo projects, I can't wait to get back and play with these guys. We love playing together.

Indy: Speaking of solo projects, can you talk about your upcoming project?

Martin: It's called Groove, Bang and Jive Around. A couple of years ago, when we were touring with DJ Logic, I would just be playing some beats during sound check and he would always say, 'Man, you got to play a breakbeat album.' I said, 'What's that?' It's just drumbeats. So I'm finally doing it. It's on my label, Amulet Records, and due out in a couple of weeks. There are a lot of breakbeat and percussion samples on there intended for DJ use [it is only available on vinyl]. It is also a collaborative project, because DJs and musicians who use the beats in their work can then submit it for another upcoming project I have. That album will have breakbeat stuff and guests. It's a cool way to interact with people and reach out to young artists also.

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