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Fusion for the People

Medeski Martin & Wood don't want to be known as a jazz band. They just want you to move.

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John Medeski of Medeski Martin & Wood sees jazz as a label, a preconception, a tool of the critical establishment. Like many musicians before him, Charles Mingus and Duke Ellington among them, he rails against the pigeonholing and the straitjacketing. Of course you guys are jazz, say the critics. Well, quasi jazz. Groove jazz. Sub jazz. How about that?

To Medeski, the band's keyboardist, this is just one big, irritating, dead-end game. "I would never call us jazz. I would never call what we do jazz," he says.

The music of Medeski Martin & Wood rethinks fusion. It draws from multiple genres and keeps a steady pulse. All labels aside, Medeski freely admits that MM&W's music issues directly from a jazz ethos. "Bill Evans called it the jazz process," he says. "It's playing one minute's music in one minute, rather than spending three weeks writing a piece. It's creating music in the moment. And we've been looking to combine this jazz process with what's relevant today."

Medeski, drummer Billy Martin, and bassist Chris Wood have ignored critics and boundaries, and synthesized many contemporary influences--traditional jazz, free jazz, contemporary classical, Latin music, rock, hip-hop, and electronica--into their highly personal, groove-drenched sound. Their spontaneous, complex music appeals to audiences both inside and outside the world of jazz. "Music is music. I don't buy into the human need to label things," Medeski says.

Medeski Martin & Wood formed in 1990. The three knew each other through mutual acquaintances, and a meeting seemed inevitable. They got together to jam at Martin's loft, and as Medeski remembers, the empathy between them was instantaneous. "It had this magic feel, the very first time we played over at Billy's. It didn't sound like we were imitating anything specifically. We felt like we were on to something."

In New York, the musicians met some of the greatest players in contemporary jazz. Though they admired the musicians and their music, they also noted that many had become insulated and disappointed. "I grew up in the jazz community," Medeski says. "I played with a lot of great jazz musicians, from Reggie Workman to Billy Higgins to Dewey Redman. I was in the scene. I saw it, and it grossed me out. These old musicians were great, but bitter that their ship hadn't come in. All of my teachers were of a mentality that they couldn't make a living playing the music they love."

Rejecting the attitude of the elder jazzmen, the trio decided that they wouldn't keep their music to themselves and the tried-and-true downtown crowds. Medeski, who had toured extensively with the Either/Orchestra, knew that an audience existed outside Manhattan. "We knew that in New York we could get fifty to one hundred people to come out. [But] I realized that if we played a different town every day, we could get fifty people out, eventually. Playing the music we want, but in different towns, playing for people we wanted to hang out with. Younger, open-minded people looking for something. If anything we're doing is valuable at all, we'll attract whoever's into it."

They began a tour common for a rock band but unorthodox for jazzmen. They traveled the country in an old Ford van--later a Coachman RV--passing over jazz clubs in favor of coffeehouses, college campuses, and small rock venues. "[We thought] hey, go out there and give it to them," says Medeski. "We went out and lost money, because we loved the music enough to give it away."

As the band developed its sound and continued to tour, the crowds began to grow. Little by little, MM&W's danceable, jazzy music seeped into the minds of a totally fresh audience: young Americans, long considered impervious to the allure of jazz.

The band developed an earthy sonic manifesto--a music that would appeal to someone unexposed to jazz, but without watering down a damn thing. "We wanted to see if people who said they didn't like jazz could relate to what we did," says Medeski. "We wanted to bring the jazz aesthetic down to earth a little bit." Their music occasionally incorporates some abstruse musical elements--the occasional Cecil Taylor keyboard deluge, for example--but stays clever, finger-snappy, eminently accessible. It passes the great dance hall litmus test: It's got a good beat. The sound might have been a little too lowbrow for some critics, but MM&W found a fan base.

They had confidence in themselves from the beginning. Evidently, their first record label did not. On the first recording, 1993's It's a Jungle in Here, Rykodisc/Gramavision forced the trio to add a horn line. "The record company didn't think what we did was good enough on its own," Medeski says. "We never played with horns live, so it was a little weird. I like [the album] though. It came out great, and I liked the musicians. It just didn't represent where we were at the time musically."

Since their Jungle days, things have improved for MM&W, but only gradually. As their fan base grew, their label afforded them more artistic freedom on later efforts. Nevertheless, MM&W still faced multiple constraints: limited time, funds, and equipment. Often they would only get a day or two in the studio, and a day or two to mix.

The recent jump to legendary Blue Note Records helped remedy their troubles to an extent. The artist-friendly label set MM&W up in a New York studio for a full two weeks--quite a lengthy session, by the harried trio's standards--and left them alone. The result: Combustication, an eclectic soundscape that ranges from the introspective ("Nocturne") to the pastiche ("Start-Stop") to the spoken word ("Whatever Happened to Gus") to the incendiary ("Coconut Boogaloo"). Their most studio-modulated effort to date also features DJ Logic. The turntable man scratches furiously on some tracks ("Sugar Craft"), dropping strange, vocalized sounds on others ("Just Like I Pictured It").

For the first time, MM&W felt able to exploit the studio as an instrument. "We were able to really improvise, using the studio as a tool, in a spontaneous, improvisational way. Our live shows are a journey, and that's what we're trying to capture on our records. It's hard to do. I feel like we were able to do that a little more on this latest [album]."

Medeski is convinced listeners can understand the music without a degree. "Whether it's a great orchestral work or it's a Jimi Hendrix record or it's a live Coltrane record, it's all great music," he says. "It's all about creating a feeling. But some people--especially young people--think that they can't understand jazz because they haven't studied it. That's the impression that most critics want to give. It's true that you have to do a lot of listening, but the spirit of it is so basic.

"As a kid, I got into Oscar Peterson and Cecil Taylor at the same time. Love Supreme, that was like rock and roll to me. The energy was so heavy, I had to listen to it one hundred times with headphones before I could even hear a note they played. Because of the image certain people are trying to give to jazz, [many] don't even give it a shot. We want to get it out there in a way that wouldn't turn people off. Nothing elitist or aristocratic.

"[Critics] can't accept that groove music can be serious because it's for partying and dancing. But I'll tell you, if you drop yourself in Ghana during a ceremony, the dancing is serious. It's a deep, human thing."

Medeski Martin & Wood. 8 p.m., Saturday, December 12, Agora, 5000 Euclid Ave., $16 ADV, $18 DOS, Ticketmaster 216-241-5555.

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