For more than 20 years, Medeski Martin and Wood have thrived on remaining indefinable. Are they a jam band with jazz chops? A jazz trio following a groove-rock muse? An avant-garde soul-jazz band? That very malleability has meant that their sound is compatible with everything from jazz clubs to festival stages, and also makes them ideal collaborators. These two new releases find them working with guitarists who each seem like perfect fits in similar if wholly unique ways: Both Nels Cline and John Scofield are virtuosic shape-shifters with a penchant for infusing out-leaning jazz with rock influences, though their respective approaches-and the results on these two CDs-reveal just how far-ranging those influences can take them.
Juice is MMW’s fourth recorded collaboration with Scofield, and their partnership has evolved to the point where they sound completely relaxed and loose in each other’s presence. So relaxed, in fact, that the quartet pursues larks like having one of jazz’s most versatile guitarists tackle one of the dumbest earworms in rock history: That’s right, Scofield plays “Louie, Louie,” the familiar party-song riff opening “Juicy Lucy.” The rest of the album maintains that party atmosphere even while turning down more serious avenues. It’s breezy without being frivolous, as the quartet shows off its agility in genre after genre.
Opener “Sham Time” is a slice of classic soul-jazz, with Medeski’s organ drawing a particularly crisp and singing solo from the guitarist. That organ comes to the fore on “North London,” which captures the feel of the Swinging London scene. The classic-rock theme carries them into covers of the Doors’ “Light My Fire” and Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are a-Changin’.” The former receives a fairly wide-open treatment, Martin’s raw rock beat stitching together searing fretwork from Scofield and Medeski’s psychedelic whorls; the latter is taken as a heartfelt gospel ballad warmed by Wood’s robust bass sound and Martin’s delicate brushwork. Their original tunes take the album through reggae and Latin rhythms and into territory that organically replicates electronic sampling and scratching effects (“Helium”).
That sort of musical transformation lies at the heart of Woodstock Sessions, Vol. 2, part of a series of live-in-studio performance recordings. This more aggressive, experimental outing takes mind-warping advantage of Cline and Medeski’s shared abilities to morph and mutate their respective instruments into alien sounds and textures; at times, it’s hard to discern who’s making exactly what noise in the heady soup. Martin and Wood take the opportunity to tether these otherworldly explorations to a more recognizable reality, though the drummer gets to show off more of his range of percussive toys while Wood’s bass at times disintegrates from dub reggae to sheer electronic crackle.
The album’s intentions are announced by “Doors of Deception,” a two-minute aurora of shimmering textures that quickly rearranges the listener’s headspace. That leads into “Bonjour Beze,” which evolves over its 11 minutes from nebulous haze to sludgy groove to heavy metal freak-out to futuristic meltdown. The next few tracks play variations on a theme of MMW establishing dub-inspired grooves only to be disrupted by Cline’s manic inventions. “Mezcal” thrives on that tension before erupting entirely, while “Les Blank” (named for the late documentary filmmaker) finds the group transforming en masse over its 14-minute length, from the gorgeously serene opening to the post-rock finale.
Nearly all of the tunes in the set follow unpredictable trajectories. “Jade” starts out spacy and mellow and ends up as deranged clockwork. “Looters” moves from evocative digital soundscape to broad-shouldered rock crunch. “Conebranch” provides a lulling wax-and-wane interlude before the steamroller assault of “Arm & Leg,” while “Cinders” closes things out with a barren desert-landscape twang. A staggering range of influences and approaches on its own, taken in conjunction with Juice the album spotlights just how much terrain this trio can cover while maintaining its expansive but recognizable collective identity.