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Undead Music Festival 2012

Tonic Reunion, MMW marathon highlight third annual alt-jazz bash in NYC

Jamie Saft performs at Le Poisson Rouge, NYC, as part of the 2012 Undead Music Festival
Vernon Reid (left) and Melvin Gibbs perform at Le Poisson Rouge, NYC, as part of the 2012 Undead Music Festival
Steven Bernstein performs at Le Poisson Rouge, NYC, as part of the 2012 Undead Music Festival
Marcus Rojas performs at Le Poisson Rouge, NYC, as part of the 2012 Undead Music Festival
Medeski Martin & Wood perform at the Brooklyn Masonic Temple as part of the 2012 Undead Music Festival
Marcus Rojas (left) and G. Calvin Weston perform at Le Poisson Rouge, NYC, as part of the 2012 Undead Music Festival
John Medeski performs at the Brooklyn Masonic Temple as part of the 2012 Undead Music Festival
Marco Benevento guests with MMW at the Brooklyn Masonic Temple, as part of the 2012 Undead Music Festival

Decades ago it was George Wein, a man on a mission to spread the joy he felt from the music that touched his soul. Today two enthusiastic young curators are following in Wein’s footsteps. They’re shaking up the scene by presenting new music that thrills them, and defining a new audience in the process.

Jointly curated by Brice Rosenbloom of Boom Collective and Adam Schatz of Search & Restore, the Undead Music Festival has appealed to those whose eclectic tastes tend toward the fringes of creative improvised music. In its third year, the renegade festival (a kind of springtime counterpart to the equally adventurous Winter Jazz Fest) expanded its borders beyond New York for the first time, by organizing a “Night of the Living DIY” in homes, warehouses, artspaces and clubs in Chicago, Milwaukee, Austin, Houston, Seattle, Portland, Richmond, Oslo, Copenhagen and other host cities on May 11. The Festival’s final night, May 12, featured a series of improvised round-robin duets at New York City’s 92YTribeca.

The focal point of opening night (May 9) in Manhattan was the Tonic Reunion showcase at Le Poisson Rouge (formerly the Village Gate). Founded by Melissa Caruso-Scott and John Scott, who curated this evening of music, Tonic was a vital Lower East Side haven for improvised and experimental music that defined a community during its run from 1998 to 2007.

At LPR, the wildly eclectic program ranged from the radical dub stylings of pianist Jamie Saft’s New Zion Trio (with bassist Jonathan Maron and drummer Craig Santiago) to the chamber-like Refuseniks (accordionist Ted Reichman, bassist Reuben Radding, drummer John Hollenbeck) to the earth-shaking power trio of guitarist Vernon Reid, bassist Melvin Gibbs and drummer G. Calvin Weston. In an adventurous improv ensemble led by Billy Martin that included cellist Erik Friedlander and tuba ace Marcus Rojas, the Medeski Martin & Wood drummer alternated with Weston between the traps set and gamelan-styled tuned percussion for stirring effect.

Drummer Ben Perowsky appeared with two different groups, the noir-rockish Elysian Fields (fronted by singer Jennifer Charles and guitarist-singer Oren Bloedow) and his Moodswing Orchestra (featuring tenor saxophonist Michael Blake, guitarist Danny Blume and vocalist/rapper TK Wonder). The edgy improv duo White Out (analog synth specialist Lin Culbertson and drummer Tom Surgal) was joined by lap guitar conjurer Bill Nace for a highly visceral, distortion-fueled set that had Culbertson power-chording on her keyboard like a rock goddess. Drummer-composer Dougie Bowne, conducting from behind his kit, conjured up a dark-hued dynamic set of music with his new Peninsula band (Doug Wieselman on bass clarinet, Michael Leonhart on trumpet, Chris Speed on tenor sax, Jamie Saft on piano and Hilliard Greene on upright bass) that at times carried the solemn power of a requiem mass. And Steven Bernstein’s Sex Mob, featuring drummer Kenny Wollesen, bassist Tony Scherr and saxophonist Briggan Krauss, put a raucous exclamation point on the night’s proceedings at Le Poisson Rouge with an energized set that roamed from old-school swing to grunge-toned mayhem.

Other highlights happening simultaneously that first evening of the festival, in the immediate proximity of Le Poisson Rouge, included Tony Malaby’s Paloma Recio (featuring guitarist Ben Monder, bassist Drew Gress and drummer Flin van Hemmen) and Gerald Cleaver’s Black Host (with saxophonist Darius Jones, guitarist Brandon Seabrook, keyboardist Cooper-Moore and bassist Pascal Niggenkemper), both at Sullivan Hall, and a scorching Chicago Underground Duo (cornetist Rob Mazurek and drummer Chad Taylor) at Kenny’s Castaways, premiering material from their Age of Energy on the Northern Spy label.

The following night, May 10, the scene shifted to the recently gentrified Fort Greene neighborhood of Brooklyn, where Medeski Martin & Wood presided over a marathon concert in the 105-year-old, 1,200-capacity Brooklyn Masonic Temple. The three intrepid improvisers (keyboardist John Medeski, drummer Billy Martin, bassist Chris Wood), now in their 21st year together, opened with a signature groove that featured Wood on electric bass and Martin laying down a funky drum beat behind him. Medeski assumed a two-handed attack on his keyboard rig, deftly comping on the Hammond organ while laying in funky wah-wah-fueled clavinet statements. At various designated points, Wood and Medeski dropped out entirely to allow Martin to switch over and play his gamelan-styled tuned metal percussion set up beside his kit, which he had played so effectively the night before at Le Poisson Rouge. From that opening improv suite, they segued right into “Doppler,” with Medeski conjuring up a greasy Jimmy Smith vibe on organ while occasionally dropping in sharp clavinet fills with left-handed karate chops to that Hohner keyboard sitting atop his stack. Wood is the anchor on these kind of infectious funk grooves, playing Rocco Prestia to Martin’s Dave Garibaldi.

They next slid right into the New Orleans-flavored “Sweet Pea Dreams,” with Wood affecting the kind of tuba basslines you’d hear in a brass band by playing with a metal slide on his Hofner electric bass. Medeski, who is also well versed in Meters-esque funk, blues-drenched Jimmy Smith-styled swing and the interstellar flights of Larry Young and Sun Ra, unveiled his Professor Longhair chops on this infectious second-line number. Wood then switched to upright bass for the slow, menacing groove of “Shackman.” The intimate Masonic Temple filled up with a fresh cloud of herb during that lengthy jam, with Medeski turning in some of the funkiest clavinet work since Billy Preston’s “Outta Space.” The clav is his secret weapon on these sprawling jams, and he tends to use it sparingly, dropping little wah-wah-inflected jolts into the proceedings when the feeling strikes.

MMW closed out this first set of the evening with the upbeat “It’s a Jungle in Here,” with Wood on his robust-toned upright, Martin laying down his syncopated funk backbeat and Medeski alternately sounding the playful melody on Wurlitzer electric piano and rolling his hands and forearms over the Hammond organ like a Jerry Lee Lewis or Cecil Taylor.

The second set of this MMW marathon was a clever bit of musical chairs in which one member of the band sat out each tune, replaced by a special guest. First up was keyboardist Anthony Coleman, who did an admirable job of filling in for Medeski on an exploratory improv with Martin and Wood. Switching nimbly from Wurlitzer electric piano to Hammond organ, Coleman unleashed bundles of creativity and chops in explosive peaks, spurred on by the tumultuous undercurrent generated by the longtime rhythm-tandem mates. Bassist and old friend Oren Bloedow, who is credited with coining the band name Medeski Martin & Wood 21 years ago, next replaced Wood in a recreation of the laidback stoner anthem “Just Like I Pictured It.”

Drummer G. Calvin Weston, who played the night before at Le Poisson Rouge with Martin’s ensemble and in a trio with Reid and Gibbs, next replaced Martin, though he opened his segment playing trumpet, which triggered a Bitches Brew-styled overture. When Weston hopped onto the kit, it quickly built to a pulse-quickening avant-funk jam that had Medeski reaching for his secret weapon to incite the crowd with potent wah-wah-clav statements. Weston’s double-time beats and bombastic power-precision flurries on the kit brought a different kind of revved-up energy to MMW, which the crowd appreciated.

Organist Marco Benevento turned in a masterful improvised set with Wood on upright bass and Martin on drums, artfully orchestrating the proceedings behind Medeski’s keyboard arsenal, from a mellow ambience to an exhilarating uptempo jam that found him wailing with rare authority. Veteran tuba ace Bob Stewart took the stage with Martin and Medeski and nearly stole the show with his funky N’awlins-flavored basslines on a second-line groover, along with his astonishing multiphonics on a reggae one-drop feel and his spirited rapid-fire exchanges with Medeski. The musical chairs section of the program concluded with drummer Adam Deitch (formerly of the Average White Band, currently of Lettuce) engaging with Medeski and Wood in a funky cover of MMW’s “Fuck You Guys.”

The third set, featuring MMW augmented by a host of special guests, opened with a Brazilian batucada jam, “Whiney Bitches,” that featured So Percussion (Eric Beach, Josh Quillen, Adam Sliwinski, Jason Treuting). Medeski took a monstrous Fender Rhodes solo here on top of the intricate latticework pattern of polyrhythms created by Martin and the guest percussive ensemble. Guitarist Vernon Reid and turntable artist DJ Logic next joined MMW for a lengthy jam. Reid opened with clean-toned Gatemouth Brown-style chicken picking over a Meters-type groove, before stomping on his distortion pedal and unleashing his signature machine-gun picking flurries. Logic jumped in with some virtuosic percussive scratching as Reid switched to Hendrix mode with some virtuosic turns on wah-wah pedal. Violinist Charlie Burnham then joined that crew with some mournful, keening statements over Medeski’s mesmerizing mellotron drones. Burnham, the most potent electric violinist since Sugarcane Harris played “Willie the Pimp” on Frank Zappa’s 1969 opus, Hot Rats, stirred up the young audience with his visceral, unbridled improvisations. During this heated jam, Medeski also conjured up the closest thing to Alice Coltrane’s signature organ sound by tweaking his Wurlitzer electric piano with a Ring Modulator.

Next up was an ebullient, gospel-flavored “No Mo’ One Mo'” featuring pedal-steel guitarist Chuck Campbell, who won over the crowd with his bluesy, wah-wah-soaked testifying, which was more aligned with old-school players like Hop Wilson or Sonny Rhodes than young, modernist steel players like jam-band-circuit favorite Robert Randolph. The third set of this MMW marathon concluded on an upbeat note with a rousing performance of the traditional Brazilian forró “Paraíba,” featuring singer Miho Hatori from the band Cibo Matto as well as Campbell sitting in on pedal steel.

As this marathon proved, Medeski Martin & Wood have developed an uncanny, near-telepathic chemistry over the past 20-plus years, and they continue to inject new energy and ideas into their formula. That openness should keep them rolling through the decades to come.

Home page photo of Erik Friedlander by Alan Scholl.

Originally Published