While the hip-hop brand of acid jazz has done a slow fade since the early '90s, the whiter, more psychedelic style that emerged around the>"/>
While the hip-hop brand of acid jazz has done a slow fade since the early '90s, the whiter, more psychedelic style that emerged around the same time has seen its popularity climb. And Medeski, Martin & Wood are at the top of the groovy heap. Over the last seven years, the New York trio has blown out of downtown clubs and onto the arena circuit. At last year's Bumbershoot, they whipped a Memorial Stadium crowd into sweaty shape as the opener for Beck. This month they're coming to the King Cat, and arriving in their wake will be two of their exciting elder allies, guitarists Marc Ribot and John Scofield.
Medeski, Martin & Wood, with Marc Ribot
King Cat Theater, Sunday, June 14
Ballard Firehouse, Wednesday, June 24
MMW has found that sweet spot where jazzoids wearing sage expressions, free-floating dreadlocked Phish-heads, club-going trance dancers, and your more discerning Spin-spun frat boys all come merrily together. The trio offers music with a familiar, retro quality and a cutting-edge cachet: Meters-style funk mixed with space odysseys and carnival gospel. The tone is mostly controlled by John Medeski, whose keyboard caboodle includes a grits-and-gravy organ, bristling clavinet, loopy Wurlitzer, the wah-wah Rhodes of Miles' trippy period, plus a lot of other watery, metallic, and unclassifiable sounds vaguely reminiscent of the '70s. Billy Martin contributes limber, unmachine-like drumming that integrates a variety of percussive toys, while bassist Chris Wood can lay down a second line stomp or take things way out with a furiously bowed solo. The band recently graduated from the Gramavision label to Blue Note, which will release its new album, Combustication, in the fall.
For live shows, MMW keeps advance planning to a minimum. "We really try to follow the moment," says Wood. "Every room is different, and it's hard to predict what it's going to be until we get up there and start making noise." A sit-down setting like the King Cat is likely to bring out the band's "more ethereal music," he says. "It's more boomy, and you tend to play a lot quieter, and in a way, more intimately." The band will also be joined by DJ Logic, its co-conspirator on a recent CD single.
Wood says the trio is hoping that its crossover success will bring more exposure to friends in the progressive jazz world, and this summer's tour is a case in point. Marc Ribot, who's been quietly revered by guitar freaks for years, will be opening the show. Ribot appeared on the MMW CD It's a Jungle in Here, and has toured and recorded with Tom Waits and Elvis Costello, among others, as well as putting out a half-dozen sides of his own. But it wasn't until last year, when he plugged into the Cuban music revival with his new band, Los Cubanos Postizos, that the 44-year-old guitarist caught the attention of a major label. The group got signed by Atlantic after only its third gig. Says Ribot: "I had barely thought about shopping it around." The resulting CD, which includes some light keyboard work from Medeski, will hit stores next week.
With Los Postizos, Ribot drills the music of Cuban legend Arsenio Rodriguez into a power-trio format. "This material is about a very big band," says Ribot. "There's call and response between the horns and vocals, and even within the horn section. Part of the musical challenge is to do a guitar reduction of this."
Sometimes the Latin format becomes a kind of lounge gimmick for Ribot, with the band sounding like a campy Santana, or Devo-plays-mambo. But for the most part, Ribot rips into the Cuban son in a way that honors its origins while creating a new power groove, turning the classic phrases into scorching, distorted guitar lines. Ribot does a joyously rocking version of the tres style (the classical Latin three-string guitar played by Rodriguez), taking the crisp and flowing melodic lines and running them through his own punk grinder. He also does some gristly vocal work, half-singing, half-sneering melodramatic tunes like "La Vida es un Sueño" in a muffled, Lou Reedy Spanglish. "This isn't about re-creating the authentic Havana sound of the '30s," Ribot stresses. "This is about being a New York band." Certainly no one who hears Ribot's trio will mistake it for a museum piece.
More guitar fun is in store the following week when John Scofield comes to Ballard Firehouse. The 46-year-old Scofield has been putting out consistently killing albums for a couple of decades, but he's gotten some extra visibility thanks to his most recent release, A Go Go, which puts him in the company of none other than Medeski, Martin & Wood. Scofield has worked with some monster rhythm sections over the years, but this was the first time he hired an existing band to back him up. "There was a kind of loose rhythmic thing to their funk that I liked and that I've been trying to get to," says Scofield. "I like the kind of New Orleans stuff that Billy Martin can do." A Go Go doesn't exactly break new ground, but for Sco lovers, it's totally satisfying. The spirit is captured in the song titles (created, as always, by Scofield's wife and manager, Susan): "Chank," "Boozer," "Chicken Dog"—it's mangy funk done with an arched eyebrow that says, "Can you believe what I just played?" For the A Go Go tour, Sco will have another organ trio in tow, including the phenomenal drummer Bill Stewart.
The matchup with MMW was shrewd not only from the musical standpoint. "I've got young kids coming to my gigs now," Scofield says. Speaking by phone last week, he mentioned that he'd just played at "a hippie festival" in Brandywine, Maryland, with a bunch of young East Coast rockers he'd never heard of. "This age group, they're really listening. They believe that music can be a magical thing. Ten years ago, nobody could give a shit. It was just jazz aficionados." Now, he says, "it's really good out there. People are dancing."