Become a member and get exclusive access to articles, live sessions and more!
Start Your Free Trial

Medeski, Martin and Wood: Uninvisible

JazzTimes may earn a small commission if you buy something using one of the retail links in our articles. JazzTimes does not accept money for any editorial recommendations. Read more about our policy here. Thanks for supporting JazzTimes.
illustration of Medeski, Martin and Wood

In the beginning, keyboardist John Medeski, drummer Billy Martin and bassist Chris Wood were merely conservatory-trained jazzbos who liked to groove and occasionally deliver clever interpretations of classics, such as their reggae version of Thelonious Monk’s “Bemsha Swing” segueing to Bob Marley’s “Lively Up Yourself” on 1993’s It’s a Jungle in Here.

And then something snapped in 1996. Shack Man was their clean break from the past-their teachings at the New England Conservatory and Berklee College of Music-and a giant leap forward. No oh-so-clever jazzbo covers on this baby.

For Shack Man, the trio’s fourth album, Medeski, Martin and Wood hauled all of their music and recording equipment into a rustic getaway shack on Maui, smoked tons of killer weed and jammed their asses off for days on end. It wasn’t long after the recording of the purely intuitive Shack Man that MMW opened for Phish in New Orleans. With that stamp of approval from the reigning jam band of the day, along with a steady word-of-mouth campaign from Phish fans generated on the Internet, neohippies began to embrace MMW as one of their own. And seemingly overnight, the former budding jazzbos were magically transformed into the new darlings of the patchouli-and-tie-dye set.

But to lump Medeski, Martin and Wood in with less talented, less innovative groups on the jam-band scene is a slight to their immense creative powers and the huge subversive streak that permeates their music.

Now comes their ninth CD, Uninvisible, an album that combines the best of their mind-altering moments from 2000’s wickedly psychedelic The Dropper with the heaviest grooves from Shack Man. Add some horns, blend with spacey dub effect and you’ve got a recipe for the meatiest bit of irreverence the MMW boys have yet cooked up. It’s music that you can dance to while contemplating its cosmic connectedness to the universal groove.

The radical, dubby sonic tweakage heard on the title-track opener and on the ambitious funk suite “Nocturnal Transmission” is reminiscent of what Adrian Sherwood was doing with Tackhead and African Head Charge in the ’80s. The two numbers are augmented by the Antibalas Horns, which lend a Fela Kuti-meets-Sun Ra vibe. But Medeski’s fatback organ work and grungy electric piano work is far more accomplished than the music these tunes recall.

“Your Name Is Snake Anthony,” a stoner’s tale set to a slow groove, is recited by the enigmatic Col. Bruce Hampton (of Hampton Grease Band and Aquarium Rescue Unit fame) with sonic hors d’ouevres provided by DJ Olive on turntables. “Pappy Check” nods to James Brown, while simultaneously deconstructing the good-foot idiom, courtesy of turntable wiz DJ P Love and guitarist Danny Blume. The spaciousness of “Take Me Nowhere” recalls Herbie Hancock’s Crossings and Sextant bands. Wood’s bass sounds like a sentir here, lending a Moroccan flavor to the avant proceedings. Medeski’s organ on “I Wanna Ride You” is simultaneously cheesy and soulful, like a cross between Sun Ra and a Southern Baptist preacher. “Retirement Song” is what I imagine King Sunny Ade would play if he were kidnapped by MMW and force-fed acid while held captive for a week in their Maui shack.

“Ten Dollar High” is classic MMW, the kind of groove that gets the neohippies flooding to the dance floor with the same James Brown-meets-DJ-culture territory that John Scofield is currently investigating. “Where Have You Been?” is the Meters on Darvon, while “Smoke” sounds like an outtake from an early ’70s James Brown project. “The Edge of Night” is a haunting bit of funk with doses of ambient dissonance, courtesy of DJ P Love and producer Scotty Hard, while Medeski’s ultrafunky clavinet work blends with his overdriven, distorted organ playing on “First Time Long Time” to create a dreamscape for the grunge-and-groove set. The closing track, “Off the Table,” is a Dadaesque collage of Ennio Morricone-style soundtrack music against the sound of two guys playing ping-pong.

Uninvisibile shows that while MMW still loves to groove, and can easily hang with the chopscentric jazzbo crowd, they prefer to push the envelope on experimentation and collective improvisation like no one else.