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Medeski, Martin & Wood’s Camp MMW

An “anti-camp” focuses on big-picture stuff

Billy Martin (at bottom right) with students

On the afternoon of Aug. 4, in a cozy basement parlor in the Catskill Mountains of New York’s Hudson Valley, drummer Billy Martin talked to roughly a dozen students about a lot of things. He dropped names like John Cage and Stockhausen; he brought up the neurological phenomenon synesthesia. He spoke about transcribing birdsongs and using paintings as scores. It all circled back to talk of visualization and how it relates to free improvisation or, rather, spontaneous composition.

A teenaged piano player volunteered to give it a go. “I don’t want to hear anything that sounds familiar,” Martin encouraged. So the kid launched into something resembling George Shearing at soundcheck, demonstrating precocious technique but not soul-searching creativity. Martin stopped him. “Don’t take me to some smoky jazz club,” he said, and the student started again. The chording became more wistful, the attack at once pensive and cathartic, the young man entranced. We were way out of that basement parlor, and that smoky jazz club, and closer to the Cologne Opera House in 1975, with our volunteer playing the role of Keith Jarrett whether he knew it or not.

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