John Medeski and Billy Martin’s musical marriage began in a cramped Brooklyn loft in 1989. Before Blue Note, sold-out festival stages, and the initials MMW being synonymous with groove jazz, the two would play in duo format for hours on end. Mago, recorded in July 2006 and produced by Billy Martin, is a celebration of Martin and Medeski’s earliest collaborations.
“Introducing Mago” is a spontaneous composition with Medeski banging out chord clusters and runs that no other player could make sound nearly as sensible. “Crustaceatron” could use an MC to rhyme over Martin’s reverb-rich hip-hop beats along with Medeski’s nebulous floating melody. In fact, it’s surprising that MMW, or in this case, MM hasn’t veered more toward hip-hop, seeing how Martin’s solo projects focus on those types of beats, and his drumming in his main gig features more traditional boom-boom-clap with each new record. The duo’s pacing is perfect, with a keen sense of space that would lend itself beautifully to the right artist on the microphone.
Energy abounds on all of the album’s 11 tracks, but there are a few places where the bottom end is sorely missed. “Hot Little” and “Bonfa” are both the trademark head-bobbing grooves we’ve come to expect from Martin and Medeski, but Chris Wood’s thumping basslines would dramatically enhance both tunes, as Medeski’s B3’s bass pedals are rarely high enough in the mix. Nevertheless, Medeski and Martin playfully balance the groove with dissonant bursts, and the results are engaging and fun. Listening to Mago is like being privy to one of those afternoon jams in ’89. Looking back, it’s easy to hear what all the fuss was about.