Rebel Music

Medeski, Martin & Wood

Jazz used to be a rebel music. But like so many revolutionary movements, it has grown regimented and rarefied, an art form based on precision rather than passion.

But Medeski, Martin & Wood, a New York-bred keyboards, drums, and bass trio, will have none of that. Consider their itinerary of Austin appearances: Last year, they played the Continental Club; this week, they appear tonight (Thursday 4) at Emo's and on Friday (5) at the White Rabbit. Although the threesome are definitely (if not defiantly) a jazz band, you won't find them playing America's jazz rooms as they crisscross America in their RV.

"In fact, we try to avoid them," explains bassist Chris Wood. "There's a certain expectation you get at jazz clubs that's a little limiting. So rock clubs and the alternative clubs are a lot more appropriate for us, especially with the type of audience we're drawing. People actually like to dance sometimes."

If you were to ride along with Medeski, Martin & Wood during their travels, you would hear a mix of road tapes as diverse as they venues they play: from De La Soul to John Coltrane to African and Brazilian music to neo-classicist Charles Ives to James Brown and Parliament-Funkadelic to Sun Ra. Wood feels that such musical openness harkens back to the spirit of the last great era of American jazz, the be-bop movement of the Fifties.

"Jazz was the pop music of the day a while back, and it was also a dance music. That's kind of what we're trying to do," he explains. "We're taking the pop music and the dance music of the day, and trying to be creative with it like they were, and do something new with it."

They certainly do. From the base of awesome, unrelenting grooves, they launch their compositions into an interstellar realm, guided by John Medeski's cosmic organ and (primitive) electronic keyboard swirls and blips, and powered by Wood and drummer Billy Martin's ultra-rhythmic musicality. Since forming in 1992, they've released three of the most critically acclaimed jazz albums in recent memory (Notes From the Underground, It's a Jungle in Here, and now Friday Afternoon in the Universe), and developed a following well outside the usual jazz audience.

"At first it was kind of a surprise," notes Wood. "We expected to be like normal New York jazz musicians or avant jazz bands and only tour Europe. But we tried touring the U.S. and it turned out great. We just started booking our own gigs around the States, and hopped in Billy's van and did it rock band style. And I'm really glad we did that, not just for the fact that it's working out, but for the music too. There's not many people playing this kind of music, playing improvised music, and touring this way as a real committed band.

"We're attracting a real young crowd," observes Wood. "Some are Deadheads, the people who really like to bootleg and are really into that whole scene, as well as the acid jazz scene. I was really surprised at the young, enthusiastic college audience we were getting. But in a way I understand it now after doing it. It's more of a psychedelic groove thing. They seem to be more of an open-minded crowd, too. So we just do what we do and they seem to enjoy it."

Plans call for Medeski, Martin & Wood to hook up with their Rykodisc labelmates Morphine for a touring double bill later this year. Meanwhile, the trio has a shared commitment to keeping their music honest and sincere.

"Doing this every night is like therapy," laughs Wood. "You know when you're cheating yourself, and you know when you're being honest and going for it. So it's a challenge, but it's great, and we're lucky to have the opportunity to do it."

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