Give up the funk

BY JUSTIN SCHEININGER
For the Daily
Published April 10, 2003

On Wednesday, Medeski, Martin and Wood laid down some of the fattest grooves ever heard at the Michigan Theater. MMW is in its own world of jazz-funk. The instrumental trio combines three of the most talented and exciting musicians around. John Medeski, the soulful keyboardist, plays like a mad-scientist. Bassist Chris Wood is called a modern-day Charles Mingus for his energy, intensity and blues sensibility. Billy Martin, drummer/percussionist extraordinaire, plays almost every percussion instrument imaginable.

Todd Weiser
Courtesy of Blue Note

Martin spoke with The Michigan Daily before Wednesday's show.

The Michigan Daily: How would you introduce your music to someone who has never heard of MMW?

Billy Martin: I just tell people it's an instrumental trio. We like to groove. It's really just a jazz-funk band that improvises. It's not easy to explain; I'd rather just play.

TMD: You play a seemingly endless array of percussion instruments. How did you develop such an interesting approach?

BM: When I was 18, I took classes in New York and that was the turning point for me. I started exploring percussion. I realized that there are so many different ways to express yourself. There are cultures that completely thrive on percussion music! And in these cultures, the percussion instruments are the band, the melody and the whole orchestra. I explored many types of music, from Brazilian to West African, Afro-Cuban and I grew up listening to rock, funk and jazz. All of that has influenced my drumming.

TMD: You developed a devoted following as a club band. How do you like playing in larger venues now that MMW has become so popular?

BM: It's not easy. You have to create an intimacy with the room and with the sound system, but try to not compromise too much with the playing. The thing is, we're very sensitive to the environment and we do play differently in different rooms, it's just natural.

TMD: How do you feel about being part of the whole jam band scene, despite having a completely different sound than all of those bands?

BM: It's a cool thing to be part of any situation where there is a scene that is open to what we do. There are a lot of people who are into that music and if they think we're part of that lineage, so be it. I think we have our own sound and the audience realizes that we're coming from a different place and we express ourselves differently (than other jam-bands).

TMD: Do you have any advice for aspiring artists to reach their creative potential?

BM: Be sincere about what you're doing; don't compromise. I think that's the most important thing. You need to explore the things that you really love and try to digest that stuff to express your true self; that's where the uncompromising comes in. Don't try to recreate something that's been done before, but use it in a way in which it becomes part of your own language.

TMD: Why so philosophical?

BM: Well, I think it goes with being an artist. Don't compromise if you can help it. Really be honest with yourself and don't be afraid to be who you are. Accept who you are, whether perfect or imperfect.