Jazz trio plays popular venue

Sam Weiner

Medeski Martin and Wood is probably one of the least creative band names ever.

But what the trio lacks in band-naming ingenuity it makes up for with its constantly evolving jazz-inspired sound, which arrives tomorrow at The Vic, 3145 N. Sheffield Ave. But to simply pigeonhole the group’s sound as jazz would be misleading.

“I don’t tell people I’m a jazz musician,” says drummer Billy Martin. “But the music is in the jazz department in the record store, and we’re on Blue Note (Records). The whole categorization thing is more of a drag these days, so I just feel like people can talk about or say what we are, but the music does all the talking and speaks for us better than any style.”

With their most recent release, 2004’s “End of the World Party (Just in Case),” MMW lets their music speak for itself by doing something they don’t normally do — they enlisted the help of a producer. Rather than choose someone from the jazz world, MMW decided to work with John King, one half of the Dust Brothers. The production duo has been involved in some of the most influential recordings of the last 15 years, including Beck’s “Odelay,” The Beastie Boys’ “Paul’s Boutique” and even Hanson’s “Middle of Nowhere.” Martin described the complicated and unconventional process that King went through to help create “World Party.”

“He just basically shaped the stuff, did the cutting, editing and looping,” Martin says. “The source material for him wasn’t from an LP. The source material was our stuff — seven days of improvising in the studio, a lot of groove stuff. And then he took that as if he went into the record bin and found some cool shit. Then taped that, and then had us play over that again.”

While this type of recording is not the norm for MMW, the group has traversed several different musical routes. MMW’s style has journeyed through the arenas of avant-garde, conventional jazz, funk and even hip-hop. According to Martin, the group continually tries to reach new territory.

“We’re trying to expand our language, our vocabulary and express ourselves in the moment,” he says. “I guess it’s the constant growth and discipline of collectively improvising and composing together. We just need the feeling of excitement when we play together.”

The “excitement” that Martin speaks of must be noticed by an array of music fans, as it is not everyday that a jazz-based group headlines a larger venue like The Vic.

Martin sees MMW’s popularity as a reflection of the group’s general attitude. “We take chances, we take risks, we’re not afraid to go crazy,” he says. “I just feel like people really dig that energy. We have sort of a rock ‘n’ roll attitude to music sometimes. I don’t mean rock ‘n’ roll style, but I mean the attitude of like, ‘Screw it. You don’t like it? Too bad. I’m giving my all — my blood, sweat and tears — for you.'”

In addition to taking chances, the members of MMW also spend a great deal of time working on side projects. Pianist John Medeski is part of The Word, a gospel-infused supergroup featuring the North Mississippi Allstars and Robert Randolph, while bassist Chris Wood is currently working on an album with his brother, Oliver. Martin runs his own record label, Amulet Records, and maintains his deejay alias, illy B. According to Martin, these projects inspire the creative growth of MMW.

“That’s sort of the most important thing, really, because you don’t wanna just stagnate,” he says. “Like in any relationship, you need to get out and experience other things and come back and share it.”

The fruits of MMW’s future work have yet to be harvested, but Martin says he expects the trio to approach new projects in the same manner that has made them one of the most popular contemporary jazz groups in the world.

“What I see on the horizon is more expansion, more records and more surprises,” Martin says. “We’re working on trying to approach this new music in a fresh way every night.”4

Weinberg junior Sam Weiner is the PLAY music editor. He can be reached at [email protected]

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