When the jazz/groove outfit Medeski Martin & Wood first came together some 25 years ago, keyboardist John Medeski admits he didn’t really think that the band, which also includes bassist Chris Wood and drummer Billy Martin, would be still kicking some 25 years later.
To celebrate their anniversary, the guys are playing two shows at On Air Studio on Friday, Nov. 18 and Saturday, Nov. 19. Each night, special guests and lifelong collaborators such as guitarist Marc Ribot, trumpeter Steven Bernstein and percussionist Cyro Baptista will join them to jam. Turntablists DJ Logic and DJ Olive are also on the bill.
“From the beginning, we knew that we would stop doing it if it ever ceased to be creatively engaging or stopped growing or stopped being fun,” says Medeski in a recent phone interview. “We toured around the U.S. and played a lot of rock festivals and opened for a lot of bands. We saw what can happen if you are stuck playing the same stuff for 40 years and you all hate each other and are still getting on stage together. We didn’t want to do that. We didn’t even talk about it. It was never an option. I wouldn’t have expected that it would still be fun every time we play, but in retrospect I’m not surprised considering the chemistry and the kind of music we play and who we are as people. We’re a trio, and there’s no major ego in the band.”
In the ’90s when the band started performing at downtown New York clubs such as CBGBs Gallery, the Knitting Factory and Tonic, the scene was already going strong.
“I don’t know if I would call it jazz,” says Medeski of that scene. “It was a lot of improvisational music. It was creative music that had nothing particular to define it. There was an aesthetic that was happening, but it didn’t require certain chords or anything. It was wide open. All of us were attracted to that. As much as I love jazz and study jazz, what I love about jazz is its spirit more than the notes and rhythms that define it. All of us are like that. The spirit of jazz is about being music in the moment and for the moment. When you just copy what someone did 30 years ago note for note and phrase for phrase, you’re not really in the moment, are you? We just gravitated to the downtown scene because it was more creative and more fun and more alive. It was what the jazz scene was like in the 1950s. It’s that spirit.”
On its first album, 1992’s Notes from the Underground
, the band adhered to jazz-based time signatures but added woozy horns to songs such as “Uncle Chubb” and turned to improv for tunes such as “United,” suggesting an ability to jam and mix genres.
”We were excited about it, and it inspired us to go out on the road,” says Medeski when asked about the album. “What we did on the road got us our first record deal with Gramavision and that grew until we ended up on Blue Note. We had great runs with each record company we were with. It was challenging because no one knew how to market us and we had to do that ourselves. We are lucky to have a record deal at all given the climate now.”
At first, the band played jazz clubs. It would then gravitate to clubs that normally hosted indie rock acts.
“Honestly, [the jazz clubs were] stuffy and pretentious, and we wanted to play for our people,” he says. “We didn’t want to play for critical guys with beards. We wanted to play for people who looking for something relevant, which jazz was at one point before it was coopted by the historical society.”
On 1996’s Shack-man
, the band delved into soul and funk. The pulsating organ riffs on the funky album opener, “Is There Anybody Here That Loves My Jesus,” suggest the sonic shift.
“That was one aspect of our music,” explains Medeski. “Each record has a certain focus. We try to make our records be records. Every live show was available and would be traded. The idea of doing a record that was live seemed stupid because everything was out there.”
evolved out of the band’s winter retreats in Hawaii in the depths of winter.
“We would spend January and February in the jungle with no electricity,” he says of the album. “We’d play music and swim. We worked on our rhythmic connection. We would groove for hours and play the same thing over and over. That was what that space provided. The shack itself had an incredible resonance with the thin plywood. When the next record came up, we took the budget and recorded there. The record company was terrified and didn’t trust us so they crimped our budget. We used our budget to buy solar panels and inverters and rent some equipment. We spent two weeks carving a record out. That’s the record that happened. In our weird way, we were trying to create musical nuggets and not stylistically like the Meters. Conceptually, it was our version of that sort of thing without a lot of soloing.
Over the years, members have played with various side projects, and Medeski says that has helped to keep the band together.
“It helps everything,” he says. “We’ve been growing and then cultivating our chemistry and language as a band. By doing other things, we have things to add to it. Getting better as musicians comes into play when we create music together. It’s key. I say it all the time that it’s why we’re still together.”
Medeski recently formed the group Saudade with Chino Moreno (Deftones, Team Sleep, Palms, and Crosses), guitarist Dr. Know (Bad Brains), bassist Chuck Doom (Crosses, Team Sleep) and drummer Mackie Jayson (Cro-Mags and Bad Brains).
“That is the brainchild of a friend of mine from South Florida where I grew up,” says Medeski when asked about the group. “The first band I was in when I was 15 was with this bassist named Charles Norkus, who was friends with Jaco [Pastorius] and Jaco’s brother in law. Chuck Doom is the mastermind behind this project. I can only hope it will turn into something. It’s a blast. The music is fun, and it’s cool. It’s one of these weird dreams you’d never think you have. The music business is difficult, but there’s lots of excitement behind it.”
As far as the anniversary shows go, Medeski says they’ll be a “celebration.”
“There will be older music brought into play,” he says. “We have different people each night. We have guitar players and horn players. We’ll cover a lot of material we’ve done in the past as well as create some new music for the shows. There will also be spontaneous compositions that will only be available that night. We’re filming the shows and they’ll be part of a documentary about us. These will be our only MMW shows this year so we will be pumped.”
Medeski Martin & Wood with Special Guests Marc Ribot, Steven Bernstein, and Cyro Baptista | +DJ Sets by DJ Logic & DJ Olive, 8 p.m. Friday, Nov. 18 and Saturday, Nov. 19, On Air Studio, 1075 Old River Rd. Tickets: $50, grogshop.gs.