Medeski, Scofield, Martin and Wood: Lightning Strikes Twice
Back before the Internet permeated every facet of our existence—before MySpace, blogs, RSS feeds and e-newsletters—bands kept in touch with their fans through the ubiquitous fan hotline.
Despite their “official” air, these “hotlines” were generally nothing more than 800 numbers hooked up to old answering machines in bass players’ apartments. They broadcasted show times, provided tour updates and regaled callers with occasional tales from the road. A few, like that of Medeski, Martin and Wood, allowed fans to leave messages. One message left by a fan in the winter of 1997 changed the N.Y.C.-based jazz-funk trio’s career forever and resulted in two seminal fusion albums from one of the great collaborations in the past 20 years of jazz history.
When Shack-Man came out, I heard it and was totally blown away. Around the same time, my daughter gave me some tapes of their live shows and I told myself that I had to play with these guys,” says legendary guitarist John Scofield, speaking from his home in New York. “So I tried to get in touch with them. At that point, they had a phone number where their fans could call them and leave messages, so I was just one of their fans that called in. There were the regular MMW fans who were like, ‘Ooh man, you guys are so cool,’ and then it was me saying, ‘Hi, this is John Scofield. I’m trying to get in touch with you because I’d like to get together and jam.’”
At the time, MMW was living at The Shack, a secluded winter retreat set in the tropical jungle on Maui and recommended by drummer/composer Bob Moses.
“It’s definitely off the grid, so there are no phones and this is pre-cell-phone days. We’d go into town maybe once or twice a week to get supplies, check messages and sort of touch base,” explains bassist Chris Wood. “We were in town one day and there was a message from someone claiming to be John Scofield. Medeski and I were convinced that it was a friend of ours who was playing a joke on us, someone we knew who could do lots of good imitations. We were so sure that it was that guy, [so] we went back out to the jungle without calling back.”
The pair returned to The Shack and told drummer Billy Martin about the message.
“They didn’t believe it was Scofield at all,” Martin says with a laugh. “They thought it was a prank call, but after talking about it a little, we decided we should probably call back just to make sure.”
“So John Medeski called back like three weeks later and was like, ‘Is this really you?’” Scofield remembers, laughing. “I remember telling him several times that it was really me, but I don’t think he believed it at first. A few weeks later, they came back to New York and we got together, jammed some and then went in and recorded A Go Go.”
The timing of A Go Go, the 1998 album of Scofield originals with Medeski, Martin and Wood serving as his backing band, couldn’t have been more serendipitous for either the legendary guitarist or the avant-jazz-funk upstarts.
In 1996, after six successful years at Blue Note, Scofield signed with Verve Records and released Quiet, an album that featured the guitarist playing mainly acoustic instruments backed by bass and drums and accompanied by both horns and woodwinds. While Quiet contained some of the most intricate and delicate compositions of Scofield’s career, it wasn’t the straightahead jazz Scofield played fresh out of Berklee with Gerry Mulligan and Chet Baker on the pair’s 1974 reunion concert at Carnegie Hall; it wasn’t the blues-tinged jazz he’d played with Jay McShann on Last of the Blues Devils; nor was it the exemplary postbop he’d recorded for Blue Note as a leader, with the matchless tenor saxist Joe Lovano as his sideman.
Most importantly, Quiet was not the jazz-funk and fusion that had become the guitarist’s trademark beginning with a string of five albums he made with Billy Cobham in the mid-1970s, and later perfected as a member of Miles Davis’ band in the mid-’80s. The time was ripe for Scofield to return to his funk and rock roots and he needed a band willing to go there with him.
By the time they first jammed with Scofield in the winter of 1997, Medeski, Martin and Wood were well established in the New York City downtown scene. The trio was born in 1991 after Chris Wood and John Medeski toured Israel as part of Bob Moses’ band and decided, upon their return to the States, to leave Boston for the Big Apple. Medeski quickly had a regular gig at the Village Gate and soon asked Wood to join. The duo eventually found the last piece of the puzzle in Billy Martin, a drummer/percussionist who had played and recorded with artists like John Zorn, Bill Frisell, Chuck Mangione and former Medeski/Wood boss Moses.
After a few months, the band released Notes from the Underground, an album that captured the group’s initial acoustic approach but strayed far from the traditional jazz piano-trio format. Gramavision soon signed the group and released It’s a Jungle in Here in 1993, establishing the band’s groove sensibilities accentuated by horn arrangements courtesy of future Sex Mob leader Steve Bernstein. Friday Afternoon in the Universe was recorded during four days off from touring in the summer of 1994 and further solidified MMW’s status as the bastard sons of mid-’70s Miles Davis and the swamp-funk of the Meters. The band members stopped paying rent in N.Y.C. in ’95 and moved to Hawaii to live in The Shack. Shack--Man was the result, an album recorded using solar energy that reflected the relaxed, tropical environment in which it was made.
“It had this great feel to it that few jazz albums had at the time,” Scofield says. “They play the funky New Orleans grooves and the old school, earthy R&B thing, but with a jazz mentality and a freedom that nobody else does. There’re a number of people out there that are experts in that music, like some of the original guys still left from Stax and the old R&B days. But they don’t have the desire to take it out. MMW does. That’s why I called to jam with them.”
Although the group’s ability to improvise initially attracted his attention, Scofield says the individual talent of each musician was apparent from the start.
“When I first heard Billy play, I was blown away,” he remembers. “I loved the beats that he played and the loose rhythm and the sound of his drums. He had a real different thing—he uses some great kind of lo-fi sounds on his drums. And I don’t say that in a bad way at all. It’s just different from the huge drum sounds that have developed in modern recording. So in a way it’s a throwback, but these guys were never retro for the sake of being retro.
“And then you’ve got Medeski. There’s nobody who uses electronic keyboards like John does. The only person I can think of who has such an array and arsenal of sound is Joe Zawinul. He doesn’t use synths like Zawinul did; it’s mainly analog keyboards, organs, clavs and electric pianos and then he’ll do things to affect the sound with effects. But he and Zawinul are the same in that they have an orchestra at their fingertips.
“As a bassist, Chris understands the bottom function as well as being a great soloist. The fact that he plays great electric and upright is amazing. I think he’s had something to do with the younger guys going back and playing electric bass as well as upright. Chris plays the right thing. Really, you can say this about all of them. They just play the right thing at the right time—it’s the intangible that great musicians have that makes the music take off and makes it all possible. They’re just stone-cold groovers and they motivate me to free it up even more than I normally would. Really, they were a dream band for me to play with.”
A few weeks after receiving Scofield’s message, the trio flew back to New York and entered Avatar Studios to begin work on what would become A Go Go. The sessions lasted just three days.
“I would bring in sketches and we’d play, and then the next time we’d get together I’d have a new bridge or a coda,” Scofield explains. “It was my music on that record, but the tunes were loose enough that they could interpret them. Their interpretations are really what made that record what it is. Every one of the songs has the Medeski, Martin and Wood stamp on it. I wanted it that way instead of them just trying to play something that I thought of, which never works anyway. You got to leave it open to the musicians in this kind of music.”
According to Martin, the chemistry with Scofield was almost immediate, despite the quartet’s never having played together before. “Some albums come out almost fully realized and complete and others take years and years to develop. It seems like a lot of the really great things happen effortlessly and that’s how A Go Go was,” says the drummer. “Scofield has this way of threading us together, almost sewing us together in a way. The way he plays, weaving through the rhythm section, seamlessly and just really making it groove and complete. He makes what we do that much more connected. So right away, it just felt really good, which is strange because Sco was pretty much a complete stranger to us at the time. Even though I knew his music, I had no idea how he had that New Orleans thing—that rhythmic feel that swings and also grooves. When I heard that, I knew everything would be OK. In a way, it relaxed us—we could sit back and just groove behind him.”
And groove they did. Like the soundtrack to a dark, swanky, velvet-fringed speakeasy, A Go Go bumps and bounces in fits and starts, Scofield’s guitar spraying sporadic solos atop the trio’s equally unpredictable, funk-filled rhythms. A Go Go remains one of the rare albums that retains its relevance nearly nine years later, a genre-defining masterwork that sounds as current today as it did the day it was recorded. Yet outside its timeless appeal and cult-favorite status, A Go Go also helped significantly broaden both parties’ audiences. In the wake of the album’s success, Scofield was welcomed into the jam-band scene and delivered three albums—Bump, überjam and Up All Night—featuring guest appearances by members of Sex Mob, Soul Coughing, Deep Banana Blackout, Lettuce and Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe that cashed in on his newfound street cred with the neo-hippies. Conversely, A Go Go and Scofield’s embracing Medeski, Martin and Wood lent the group credibility in the spectacled eyes of the international jazz aristocracy.
“It’s very strange, but if you haven’t played with Miles Davis, it’s hard to get any respect in Europe,” Medeski explains. “So we got to play with a guy who played with Miles Davis and that was good for our reputation over there. Since our music is not very traditional in the jazz world, it’s hard for people to judge it sometimes. I think playing with John and him doing that record with us gave us a certain credibility. The fact that he took us seriously enough to do a record with us, it seemed like it helped get us a few gigs over there.”
“I think the stars came together on that record,” says Scofield. “It was just the right time on the music scene for it to happen. With their trajectory and my trajectory, we met at the right time and people were there to listen to it, too. It’s one of my very favorite albums I’ve ever made. But sequels never work anyway. We couldn’t do A Go Go again because the vibrations in the air have changed in nine years.”
When we did A Go Go, we did it at Avatar Studios, which is a great, high-level recording studio. Everything is very pristine sounding and clean,” Chris Wood explains. “Our studio is pretty different than that. It’s…not so fancy.”
Shacklyn, the epicenter for everything Medeski, Martin and Wood since the trio found it in 1997 after returning to New York from Hawaii, is located in one of hundreds of nondescript industrial buildings scattered throughout Brooklyn. The space is littered with instruments and equipment, serving as both a rehearsal space and a storage unit when the band’s off the road.
“It’s in the basement and the electricity isn’t exactly that clean,” Wood says. “Every once in a while you might hear a drill sound that is coming through the wires from the wood shop four flights above us, things like that. It’s a little funky but I think it gives it some flavor. It definitely gave the album a certain kind of cool sound that makes it unique from A Go Go.”
The album in question is Out Louder, the much anticipated follow-up to A Go Go recorded in the first weeks of 2006 and released on MMW’s own Indirecto Records. Fulfilling their commitment to Blue Note with Note Bleu: The Best of the Blue Note Years 1998-2005, released in April 2006, MMW opted out of re-signing with the label (“They offered us less money so we just said no,” Martin says matter-of-factly) to produce their albums independently. Just as MMW decided not to return to Blue Note, Scofield’s contract with Verve ended and the guitarist was label-less for the first time in many years. As in the winter of 1997, the timing proved perfect for another serendipitous collaboration, but this time, Scofield was playing on Medeski, Martin and Wood’s turf.
“We wanted to loosen it up, dirty it up a little bit because Scofield sounds so good in that setting,” Wood says. “It kind of harkens back—I don’t know, maybe in my own fantasy world—of him doing that with Miles Davis’ band and what that must have been like. I think Miles liked to keep his band guessing. Nobody knew what was going to happen next, so you just had to react and make it good. This was kind of our own version of that.”
“We went in and just played free for like 45 minutes on the first day. The second day, we did it again. Then we went back and listened to these jams and said, ‘Okay, hear this little five-minute section—let’s re-record something in that vein.’ We’d make up an arrangement for the tune and go right in and record it,” explains Scofield. “So it’s completely different than writing a tune in the traditional sense. You write a tune together but you’re really writing it on the spot. What we really did was kind of recreate and reshape a jam that had happened before. I think it’s just the greatest way to play and to make things spontaneous. There’s just something that happens when you’ve never played something before that’s intangible. It’s fresh in a way that you can never recapture. You can drive it in the ground by playing it over and over again, so you can lose it. You can’t capture it but you can lose it. It just comes when it’s ready. Miles saw this as the essence of jazz music—that the music gets stiff when it’s not fresh, when it’s not in the moment. It’s a certain spontaneity. It’s a certain in-the-moment kind of thing that is in life and it’s in music but it’s not from us. It comes from another place through us. Miles was all about trying to get to that and Medeski, Martin and Wood are carrying that on.”
“That’s really how Medeski, Martin and Wood got together; just improvising,” Medeski says. “For me, improvising like that has always been one of the main things I love to do. It’s like a certain language unlike any other one. And John totally jumped into it. He can do anything. Since we recorded A Go Go, we’ve run into each other a lot and played with each other at festivals, so John got more open to the idea of just improvising and seeing what happens as he got more comfortable doing that with us.”
Despite the fact that he hadn’t taken a similar approach to recording since his days with Miles, Scofield proved quite comfortable in the setting.
“A couple of the tunes on the record are culled from that first 45-minute jam; they’re the actual parts of the jam we played that day,” he said. “‘Down the Tube’ is one. I’m really proud of that one. That’s the first 10 minutes of the 45-minute jam on the first day. ‘What Now,’ which is a cool blues shuffle, was also taken from that same jam the first day. I knew these guys had been taking this approach on their records for a long time, but actually getting in, setting up in the same room together and doing it with them really energized me. It kind of reminded me that doing that—playing free—was really what I loved about music.”
“I think we naturally hook up with Scofield because he’s as open as we are—Sco can play anything,” Wood boasts. “He’s great and is so musically flexible and such a great improviser that he can react to and work with anything. We can do complete improvisations and his solos are so melodic that after a couple listens, you’re singing his solo. It’s no wonder that Miles Davis used one of his transcribed solos as a melody for a song. He just has a way of playing that is melodic despite all the chops and speed and everything. He’s really singing when he plays.”
Another tune cut on the first day was the only song Scofield brought to the sessions—“Little Walter Rides Again.”
“I became a blues fanatic around the age of 13,” the guitarist remembers. “In the mid-’60s, right when the Paul Butterfield Blues Band’s first record came out with Mike Bloomfield on it, I was way into B.B. King, Otis Rush, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, all that stuff. And that’s the music that led me to jazz a couple years later. The guitar lick I play is like one note different from some Little Walter riff. I can’t remember the name of the tune, but I just realized as I was playing it. It’s one of the tunes I wrote pretty quickly, because I’m trying to keep it spontaneous. I realized it was coming out of Little Walter and I wanted to give it up to Little Walter, who I believe is one of the true greats.”
“The other influence on that one is the New Orleans sound. The Meters are big for both MMW and me, too. It just feels right to go there. It’s the Meters but it’s also all the swing/funk that came out of that city. All those guys played Dixieland and funk gigs in the ’60s. They put it together to make a kind of music that just makes absolute sense to me. It’s very much related to reggae and all kinds of soul-jazz that was coming out in the ’60s, too. It’s a really natural thing. And that’s what we went for on a lot of the beats on the record.”
Besides the blues and funk influences, Out Louder is also flavored by the individual influences of Medeski, Martin and Wood. The opening notes of “Tequila and Chocolate” find Chris Wood picking an almost flamenco-style bass line backed by eerie organ lines from Medeski and some pseudo-samba rhythms from Martin.
“That’s the Hofner. That is what I love about those Hofner basses—it has two pickups, and if you turn one of the pickups off, the farthest one to the bridge, you get this kind of thin, nasally sound that just sounds great with a pick,” Wood says. “If anything, that song came more out of playing a lot with Mark Ribot and intentionally or unintentionally sort of copying him. I just love the way he plays and I love Cuban music, so that is kind of my lame attempt to copy some of that material in the world of MMW and Scofield. It’s also us tipping our hats to Hermeto Pascoal. He was a big influence on that tune, whether it was intentional or not. The way that John Medeski plays on it, there is a lot of influence there from Hermeto Pascoal and the Brazilian music that we love.”
The group’s official nod to Miles Davis and the tremendous influence he’s had on both Scofield and MMW is realized on “Miles Behind,” a fusion tribute where Martin’s frenetic drumming drives screaming leads by Scofield and Medeski. Throughout the madness, Wood holds down the bottom end.
“‘Miles Behind’ is like the music I heard when I first found Miles,” Scofield says. “It was at the Jazz Workshop in Boston, Mass. in 1970 or ’71 and he was playing with that band that made Live Evil. His music in that period affected us all, both me and the other guys. I thought that that jam we got into really reflected Miles’ Live Evil era.”
Out Louder features two covers pulled from distinct genres—Peter Tosh’s “Legalize It” and “Julia,” John Lennon’s ode to his mother off the Beatles’ White Album.
“I often have these classic pieces of music that I grew up with or just dig and feel like we could try it,” Martin says. “Mostly, they’re these crazy, uncanny ideas, but Medeski and Chris always seem to embrace them. ‘Legalize It’ was a tune that we’ve been doing for a long time, on and off, in our live shows. When we got into the studio with Sco, we decided to try it. I love the way Sco sounds on that and [he] just brings a whole new vibe to the song. He just sort of lightly surfs through it and really gives it what it needs.”
The quartet transforms Tosh’s ode to the green leaf, Medeski handling the vocal melody on organ while intermittently sparing with Scofield’s escalating guitar riffs. The same can be said about the group’s rendition of “Julia,” a tune that Scofield got the idea of covering from his wife, Susan.
“My daughter, Jeannie, is a singer around New York City and she has been performing with this producer who puts on shows at the Bowery Poetry Club. Each night is dedicated to a different musician,” he says. “So there was a John Lennon show and Jeannie wanted to pick a song to sing. My wife, Susan, suggested ‘Julia.’ We did it as a duo at this show, so I really learned it from playing it with my daughter. I sort of had it under my fingers when we started recording this record and I thought it might be nice to do with the guys because it’s so different than anything we’ve ever done before. I just wrote out the chords for it and we did it in one take. I thought it would work to play under some nice chord compression that you can improvise over. It’s a beautiful song and the lyrics are incredible.”
Instrumentalizing the Beatles catalogue is a feat rarely pulled off successfully, as most of the time the results sound like some tacky soundtrack to the Weather Channel. But the sincerity and honesty of Scofield’s playing—his tone, tempo and note choice—get to the heart of the song and express the intimacy in Lennon’s lyrics.
“Yeah, I definitely agree,” Wood says. “I also think the way Medeski played organ—the way there’s something a little bit spooky about his organ part—takes it away from the elevator muzak realm. It just ends up having this really ethereal, mysterious sound to it. It’s beautiful. It’s hard with instrumental music to do that sometimes—to do something that is sort of sweet with a sincerity that doesn’t end up sounding too corny or cheesy. It’s a fine line. I think we just barely stayed on the right side of the line.”
Fans of A Go Go might think a tune like “Julia” sounds misplaced on Out Louder. It strays greatly from the thick grooves of the quartet’s initial recording, the fusion and postbop that’s made Scofield famous or the innovative mix of jazz, worldbeat and funk Medeski, Martin and Wood has perfected since the early ’90s.
“People looking for that sequel to A Go Go thing, they’re gonna get that, but they’re also gonna get Sco stretching out more in a direction that MMW does when we improvise and create something in the studio,” Martin explains. “To me, it represents the next step, a deeper, entwined sort of organism. We spent a week with Sco in the basement of our studio and hung out and had coffee and ate and played and listened a lot. There’s a lot of camaraderie on this record.”
In short, Out Louder is not the first kiss that A Go Go was. It’s the evolution of a musical relationship between two entities destined to make music together. The players are more familiar with one another and more willing to take the risks and chances necessary to take the music into the great unknown. With A Go Go, the door was opened for this serendipitous meeting of musical compatriots, and Out Louder takes the collaboration to the next level.
“My crystal ball is broken, but I love these guys,” Scofield says. “I love playing with them and I hope we stay together and we’re able to do stuff forever. And hey, I got their at-home personal numbers and e-mails now, man. So I’m in direct contact with MMW unless they change all their numbers. Then I’ll just go back to calling the fan line.”
Moses in the Middle
Bob Moses is the nexus of the Medeski, Scofield, Martin and Wood universe. Billy Martin first met John Scofield on a session for the legendary drummer and composer; Moses later introduced Chris Wood and John Medeski to Martin after the bassist and keysman moved to New York following a tour of Israel backing the drum master.
A professor at the New England Conservatory, Moses played with Rahsaan Roland Kirk as a teenager, put together one of the early fusion groups, Free Spirits, with guitarist Larry Coryell in 1966 and toured with Gary Burton throughout the late ’60s. Over his 40-plus year career, he’s collaborated with Dave Liebman, Jack DeJohnette, Pat Metheny, Mike Gibbs, Hal Galper, Gil Goldstein and Steve Swallow, among many others.
I have a feeling that Medeski, Martin and Wood would have found each other even without me. They were just so right for each other—three very gifted musicians of a similar age, at a similar level, with sympathetic personalities and very open, artistic and creative. Even if one cat was from Turkey and another guy was from Kazakhstan and the other was from Argentina, they would have found each other. Billy was the perfect drummer, Chris was the perfect bass player and John was the perfect pianist for this group.
Each one I met differently. I knew Billy first and probably what brought us together was our shared appreciation for Brazilian escola samba music. There were a couple of samba schools in New York and Billy used to play around the scene as a kid. He was already a hell of a drummer obviously and I used to get involved a little bit with the different escola sambas in town. We became friends and had similar interests. We’re both into painting and visual arts and all the different roots drumming from Africa and Latin America. I always liked being around young cats that have that kind of talent and inspiration. When I had some use for extra percussion, I would use Billy. We did a duet record together a long time ago and we even toured a little bit. He had a lot of heart as well as being a great player.
John and Chris I met through my teaching gig at NEC [New England Conservatory]. John was actually a student of mine and remained so for his whole three and a half years at NEC, although I can’t say that I taught him anything. Maybe the first couple lessons I showed him some rhythm principles that I found useful and he gobbled that right up. After about the third lesson, it was really just like two bohemes hanging. John is really an extraordinary cat. They all are, but John is a world-class swimmer and diver and an excellent gourmet macrobiotic chef. He’s quite gifted as a massage therapist. I remember he did something to my back one time when it was really hurting that completely killed it in about a minute. I had been hurting for months and he just did about a minute-long thing that made the pain disappear. Not only that, but he plays pretty good piano, too.
Chris was younger so he came a little bit after John, I think. He never was a private student of mine at NEC but he was in one of my ensembles for a year or so. I heard just how good he was and he was playing better than probably most of the teachers at that point. I used him on projects whenever I could because he is one of my favorite bass players and he’s very in tune with the drums. He really listens and is really capable of playing any style or anything that you put in front of him.
Chris is also a hardworking cat. I remember he subbed at a rehearsal for a record that I was making called Time Stood Still and there was one tune that had a long unison melody. It was like a triplet groove, but the bass was supposed to play in unison with the horns. The part went on for about three pages and we played it once through. I had a few comments to make to the different players and meanwhile I look up and see Chris with the amp turned off with his head in the music just practicing away. I must have talked for about five, maybe 10 minutes before we tried it again. Chris turns around and played it without looking at the music. He had memorized it in 10 minutes and the difference that made was incredible. Everybody in rehearsal always had their head in their music, and when you have your head in your music, you’re not dancing. He was playing this three-page melody that I had written without looking at the music and with his eyes locked in on the drums, just dancing his ass off. It wasn’t even his gig but that kind of conscientiousness as a sub at a rehearsal is very rare. These cats—Medeski, Martin and Wood—are very unusual.
I’ve known Scofield for years. We’ve been on some sessions together and played around New York. John is a great guitarist who’s always been in search of the perfect rhythm section. He plays jazz, funk, rock—really a flexible guy musically. He’s always had a funky side to him, probably from his time playing with Miles. John came up out of that. He’s a great jazz player but he likes to play the funky grooves and Medeski, Martin and Wood are some of the best at that. So for what John is doing, I couldn’t think of a better rhythm section for him. They’re readymade. They come together. But I think those guys would be great for a lot of people.
Keys: Hammond B3 organ, Wurlitzer 7300, Mellotron, Fender Rhodes piano, Clavinet, Steinway piano
Amps: ’53 Fender Bassman , ’55 Fender Tremolux, Kay amp, Leslie 147
Effects: Roland space echo, Moogerfooger analog delay and ring modulator, Vox King wah-wah
Guitars: Ibanez AS-200, Fender Custom Shop Telecaster
Amps: 1958 Fender Twin courtesy of Artie Smith, 1964 Vox AC-30 courtesy of Artie Smith
Effects: Boomerang Phrase Sampler, Ibanez Chorus Pedal (vintage), Electro-Harmonix MicroSynth Pedal, Boss EQ pedal (vintage), RAT pedal
Rogers Luxor model drum kit (vintage), Zildjian cymbals, Regal Tip sticks, Attack drumheads
Basses: 1963 Fender Precision, Hofner Club, 1920 Pfretchner double bass
Amps: ’60s Ampeg B-18, ’70s B-15 amp
Originally published in January/February 2007