Medeski, Martin and Wood w/ Nels Cline @ Blue Note – Dec. 12
Well, of course it was a good idea, and even if they hadn’t played this well, the titillation of seeing Medeski Martin & Wood in a room this small, decades into an adventurous and nearly-always-rewarding career, would have been a good enough reason to go. But then, there’s always something extra when MMW come home to the Big Apple.
[Photo via MMW Facebook Page]
The more you think about it — and the more you watch other acts who’ve been around and/or are as consistent as MMW, but who’ve undoubtedly faded with the burdens of time and expectations — the more you’re sure John, Billy and Chris have done things the right way over 21 years together.
That they don’t play together as often as they used to is, as Billy Martin told me over the summer, by design. It makes them better. It keeps things fresh. It makes the shows sound as organic and spry as possible. It reflects a collective understanding by three guys who are so intimately familiar with each other as musicians that they know the comfort level that made them that way can also make what they do feel routine and even antiseptic. Exceptional comfort among musicians is a double-edged sword, as everyone from Phish on down knows.
This was a special occasion on many levels: a six-night, 12-set run of Medeski Martin & Wood at the Blue Note. Longtime fans who watched them outgrow all those New York nooks and gnarly jazz rooms are now accustomed to seeing them from the distance of a theater or large club. But at the Blue Note — with its sardine-tight tables, suck-in-your-gut and pull-back-your-legs walking aisles, and laughably small lebensraum-per-chair ratio — the band is almost literally right on top of the seated audience. You see every bead of sweat, every grimace, every beatific grin, every calloused, darting finger. MMW welcomed us back to the laboratory, up close and definitely personal.
You knew they’d wig-out a bit in this setting. And of course, when you throw in a wild card — and what a particularly simpatico choice in Nels Cline as the guest for the night I attended — you guarantee a little bit more danger than you might otherwise. It was the kind of night where you just sit back and soak it up, reveling in the frissons. It was the kind of set — the later of two, kicking off around 11 p.m. — during which you gave up trying to scribble notes because the whole thing was going to be more than 80 percent improv anyway. (It was. At least 80 percent.)
While these days Cline pays the bills as the best hire Jeff Tweedy ever made — his sometimes-gentle, sometimes-assaulting guitar work is so key to Wilco’s sonic definition now — his non-Wilco dance card is almost always just as full, and New York gets a lot of his time. What made him work well in this setting is that he’s a respectful, but not hesitant sit-in guest.
Medeski would throw an idea out, he’d respond to it, then try to twist it with a stabbing wah or scratch or tremolo or flurry of notes. As various and sometimes un-bracketed improvisational segments veered toward nebulous noise or goopy cacophony, he could be seen basking in it, or strumming away, or shooting a glance at his bandmates with a yelping “Yeah!” or just keying in on what one of the three principals was doing under a noisy breakdown and picking his own phrases off what he heard from rhythms, squeaks or taps.
MMW can work themselves up into such an intimidatingly dense lattice that it’s not uncommon for guests to be edged out. These three don’t wait for sit-in musicians to catch fire – I’ve seen them plainly ignore guests on stage who weren’t stepping it up — and that’s part of the fun. Percussionists can at least pretend to be blending; an unwilling guitar player, on the other hand, is left to an occasional color or shade while he waits for a chance to solo. Not Nels: he was there in the thick of it, not afraid to try to pull the groupthink to him instead of yield.
If you watch MMW up close, while in action, you know everything starts out nice and relaxed while each man finds his footing. One usually sets the pace, and the other two nestle in, tweaking the vibe here and nudging the mood there. Gradually, things escalate. Sometimes they hit a pocket and just groove and groove and groove. Sometimes they embrace full-tilt insanity, and each member arrives at that differently.
For Martin, it’s when you feel the groove really start to swing and bounce, and when you see his grin get wider and wider and become laughter — he always looks like he’s having more fun than anyone else in the room. For Wood, that look on his face — gunslinger’s resolve — gets more intense, even though as a player he always projects cooler than cool. For Medeski, it’s a little less obvious. He’s got an expression on his face that looks either sly or scowling depending on the light, and that doesn’t change that much based on the intensity of the jam. But up close, you see the lips move and see him vocalizing the notes he’s playing a nanosecond before they come out of his fingers, and that’s just before he gets really jacked up and his hands start crawling across the various instruments in his keyboard fortress, moving so fast they look like spiders.
[Photo by @neddyo]
Next to these swirling personalities, Nels Cline slipped in seamlessly. He’s a cerebral player, but with a flair for the dramatic, hitting the middle of the acid-jazz/melodious noise Venn diagram with a bit of post-rock thrown in, too. He’ll play guitar like he’s wrangling an electric eel; it’s shocking him as he’s trying to control it, jerking and weaving. When he’s really laying in, the man isn’t so much playing the guitar as the other way around, and otherworldly noises — often, but not always, his signature tremolo effect — rip through the musical fabric. Another band would want to give a player like that more room to do his thing. MMW made him put it in their context, and in turn let themselves get jerked and weaved a bit, too.
I can’t be the only one who came away from these sets wondering what a MMW + Cline album would sound like. But then, this isn’t the type of thing you’d try to capture in a recorded document. Hadda be there, as they say.