Medeski Martin & Wood’s challenge on Free Magic—their first live acoustic trio recording since 2000’s Tonic—was to apply their rampant experimentalism to a fixed format. MMW accomplishes that here by essentially doing what they always do, reaching outward for inspiration, only minus the electricity.
Rather than relying on organ and electronic keyboards to produce their usual wide sonic array, John Medeski incorporates toy and prepared piano, melodica and other variations on the acoustic keys; Billy Martin expands his percussion arsenal to make ample use of the African balafon (a xylophone-like instrument) and other exotic things to hit; and Chris Wood works the double-bass as aggressively and resourcefully as he does his electric. They’re more than halfway into “Doppler,” the first of Free Magic’s five extended tracks, before they slip into a more conventional piano-trio mode.
That is their other challenge: to prove that they can put the accouterments aside and just blow, as a jazz band, sans frills. On the epic second track, “Blues for Another Day,” Medeski leads his charges from mood to mood, out to in and back out again, with both grace and bravado. The closing Mingus/Ra tribute “Nostalgia in Times Square/Angel Race” throws around bluesy, repetitious, early-Ramsey Lewis-esque phrases that cross paths, skitter away and meet up again. The back-to-back “Free Magic/Ballade in C Minor, ‘Vergessene Seelen’” and “Where’s Sly” are less successful: Both would have benefited from some judicious editing. Although MMW never drops the ball creatively, what’s fascinating to watch inside of a concert venue doesn’t always translate to compelling listening at home.