MEDESKI MARTIN and WOOD's abstract ruminations wrap themselves around your mind. Their brew of avant-garde instrumental hip-hop trance-funk is the product of a trio that's constantly growing and expanding its base of musical ideas. Expert musicianship and daringly complex composition and interaction are second nature to these three, and they found a new zenith of their experimental prowess with their latest Blue Note album, last summer's Uninvisible.
With producer/engineer Scotty Hard (The Word, Prince Paul, Deltron 3030, Wu-Tang Clan) at the helm for the third time, Uninvisible saw MMW taking risks and delivering admirably. The album's recording process was the product of a band that's spent much of the previous year involved in other projects. Keyboardist John Medeski recorded an acclaimed album with the ensemble The Word, as well as logging studio time with Sex Mob, John Scofield, Gov't Mule, and Peruvian superstar Susana Baca. Drummer Billy Martin started his own record label, Amulet Records, to release eclectic percussion albums by himself and others. Martin also organized the "Turntable Sessions" concert series at Manhattan's Exit Art gallery, combining progressive DJs with some of the Big Apple's finest jazz and experimental musicians. Bassist Chris Wood toured and recorded with artists including drummers Stanton Moore and Bob Moses, and saxophonist Karl Denson.
Rather than composing pieces in advance, the band held extensive improv sessions at their studio in Brooklyn, and then selected pieces to develop and augment. "There's something for us about the first time you play something," says Wood. "Some of these tunes sound better if we just keep the original time we played it instead of learning what we did. That moment-of-creation energy, building from there, as opposed to trying to re-create it." The band then held further recording sessions, bringing in other musicians to add layers and ideas to the music. When it came time to mix the tracks, Scotty Hard and the three musicians creatively edited and sculpted them into dramatic soundscapes.
The music on Uninvisible proved that this in-studio method of spontaneous composition can be delightfully successful when left in the hands of such capable musicians as MMW. From the gospel-funk of "I Wanna Ride You" to the spooky breakbeat atmospherics of "Nocturnal Transmission," MMW fused uncommon elements into seamless compositions. Much of the album is visceral and laid-back, the music of late-night contemplation and coffee shop philosophy. Wood stepped out front with his electric bass on "Smoke," which evolved in the studio from an extended take on Jimi Hendrix's "Fire." DJ P Love added hyperactive turntable scratches and samples to the warbling "Pappy Check" and joins guitarist Danny Blume and percussionist Eddie Bobe on the hypnotic "Retirement Song." The horn section from Afro-beat group Antibalas spiced up the album-opening title track and "Nocturnal Transmission." The closing track "Off The Table" began with Medeski's nightmarish mellotron before his echoing organ and Wood's electric bass chords set a more relaxed tone, and the album ended as Martin's steady beat degenerated into DJ Olive's sample of two men playing ping-pong.
Among the new ideas for the band on Uninvisible was the use of vocalists; while there is no singing on any of the tracks, "Where Have You Been" featured humming and other flourishes from Crash Test Dummies singer Brad Roberts. And "Your Name Is Snake Anthony" began with the renowned southern rock eccentric Col. Bruce Hampton telling a story, to which MMW, Blume, and DJ Olive improvised an eerie soundtrack.
Uninvisible marked a bold conceptual innovation from a trio that explored matching acoustic jazz with danceable beats in the early '90s and mixed jazz ideals with hip-hop rhythms and turntables on 1998's Combustication. The band explored the musical deep end with 2000's experimental masterpiece The Dropper, earning them high praise from JazzTimes, Down Beat, Spin, and Alternative Press, among others.
Touring relentlessly from the start, MMW earns fans with innovation and interplay, and has shared stages with A Tribe Called Quest, The Roots, Beck, Hermeto Pasqual, and Phish, and served as a backing band on albums by punk icon Iggy Pop and jazz guitar whiz John Scofield. The trio is always branching out, individually and together, looking for new ideas and angles. "The language we're developing together is becoming more vast, we have more of a vocabulary now," says Martin. "The way we communicate is becoming more sophisticated, more effective."
With Uninvisible, MMW once again tested new waters, creating danceable rhythms and elemental ambiance in a most uncouth manner. Their inventiveness is undeniable. Says Medeski, "What we do as a group is very intuitive and instinctive. For us to keep growing and changing is vital to our staying together."