John Medeski is a funny guy. Or a crazy man. Or a musical genius. Or all of the above. In any case, he makes up one third of the instrumental jazz/jamband Medeski, Martin & Wood, and his next moves are unpredictable. So, tonight at the Michigan Theatre, don’t be surprised if he drops a funky keyboard rhythm one minute before delving off into outer space.
When asked why the trio occasionally opens a show with erratic free jazz, he said, “It’s kinda’ like foreplay. It’s a good way to get that (improvisational) muscle lubricated.” It makes sense, considering how many musicians have likened a good jam to sex — or how many critics have likened it to masturbation.
Either way, MMW is known for how well they fit together. Even though Medeski is the only one that plays a lead instrument, it’s impossible to tell who’s actually the star. Billy Martin’s drumming booms with a cocky swagger and he’s also the onstage voice of the group. But don’t forget Chris Wood, a strange-looking fellow — Medeski jokingly attributes this to “a lot of plastic surgery” — who hunches over his upright or electric bass at center stage, thumping out the low end with calculated disorder.
But what happens when the trio adds a fourth element to the mix? No, they haven’t enlisted studio guitarist Marc Ribot as a permanent guitarist, even though he never ceases to show up on their studio albums. For their latest LP End of the World Party (Just In Case), they signed up a big-time pop producer, John King (Dust Brothers, Beastie Boys, Beck), and gave him so much creative control that he ended up with songwriting credits. The band figured that they could use the outside input to expand sonically.
“We do so many different things and can do so many different things,” Medeski explained. “We said ‘let’s use John and see what he hears in our music.’ It was very much his direction.”
King, who basically recorded MMW improvising and constructed the album with a hip-hop mentality, picks the best pieces and loops them as samples while the band records new sections on top. It’s no surprise then that End of the World Party (Just In Case) does sound different than their previous works. It’s danceable, and stays interesting and substantial thanks to the little bits and pieces of tonal continuity that rise to the surface.
“That’s the battle,” Medeski said. “One of the things that we experiment with all of the time is the line between grooving and being more intellectually advanced or adventurous.”
As far as translating the new songs into a live setting, Medeski doesn’t seem worried — for a band that has been around for 14 years, keeping the marriage fresh is a necessity. Yes, they all have side projects, but it’s not the same as playing together. None of the band members feel like they’re musically cheating on one another.
“It’s like having a conversation with an old friend. It gets deeper in a lot of ways, even if it’s not weird and exciting and new as having a conversation with someone you just met in a bar,” Medeski said.
Tonight’s show is the first leg of their two month-long national tour. Always the kidder, Medeski sent out this message to his fans in Ann Arbor. “First gig is always the best.”