Medeski Martin & Wood Captivate with ‘Avant-Groove’ Fusion in Cleveland

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John Medeski (left), Chris Wood and Billy Martin (seen here in a publicity photo) performed in On Air Studio in Cleveland on Nov. 18.

(Photo: Courtesy mmw.net)

Count on Medeski Martin & Wood to throw a very entertaining party. With the help of illustrious friends, the deeply hyphenated trio did just that Nov. 18 in Cleveland, launching a 25th-anniversary mini-tour set to culminate at Le Poisson Rouge in New York with shows Jan. 16, 17 and 18.

The Friday night date was the first of two consecutive sellouts in On Air Studio, an acoustically excellent venue in a recently developed Cleveland entertainment and residential neighborhood known as the Flats East Bank.

Joining keyboardist John Medeski, drummer Billy Martin and bassist Chris Wood were guitarist Marc Ribot, percussionist Cyro Baptista, trumpeter Steven Bernstein, trombonist Brian Drye and saxophonist Briggan Krauss on alto and baritone saxophone.

DJ Olive, who alternates with DJ Logic on this limited tour, added to the mix. While Olive was more presence than showman, his sneaky scratching helped maintain the heat.

The group, which began its unorthodox career in New York clubs at the dawn of the 1990s, has evolved into a major draw, straddling the jazz and jam-band worlds. (A sign of the band’s cross-genre appeal: At the concert, a few fans wore heavy wool jackets decorated with Deadhead symbols, even though the weather was unseasonably balmy.)

The standing-room-only date grooved to tunes including the swirly, accretive “Henduck,” a terrific medley of Thelonious Monk’s “Bemsha Swing” and Bob Marley’s “Lively Up Yourself,” an elegiac take on King Sunny Ade’s “Moti Mo” and “The Lover,” a rocker that started the second set. Four of the tunes came from Shack-man, a 1996 MMW album.

The vibe was consistent throughout, as Medeski coaxed otherworldly sounds from his keyboards, including vocal-like cries, the creaking of a ship in stormy waters, buzzsaws and snaky, single-note lines. Wood alternated acoustic and electric bass, and Martin kept the groove solid even when the tune was more atmosphere than song. Each musician got his turn in the spotlight, and thankfully, the solos were not only artful but efficient.

The band built its sets effectively, starting the show with a take on “Henduck” that slowly roared into life, stoked by lighting that went from ominous red to pulsating gold.

“Think” fused a Bo Diddley-esque shuffle to a New Orleans second-line groove, and featured searing solos by Wood and Martin. And when the antic Batista joined in on “Last Chance To Dance Trance (Perhaps),” the energy ratcheted way up.

Batista was all over the place, wielding shakers of various size and texture, snapping the “leaves” of a tree-like percussion instrument, banging a cowbell and howling wordless vocals. He was effectively a show unto himself.

The first set—which featured ironic, witty horns on the buzzy and aspirational “Reliquary”—ended with a rendition of “Moti Mo” that was sweet and soulful, though a bit overextended. The Ade tune was as close as MMW and friends got to the contemplative.

The second set, which began with a super funky “The Lover,” was something else entirely, largely due to Ribot, a musician at home in any genre and a perfect fit for the similarly category-defying MMW.

While this stunning guitarist played only on “Nocturne,” “Pappy Check” and the closer (a hellacious “Queen Bee”), he entranced the audience, shredding like a heavy-metal ace. He strafed the neck of his instrument as if on a mission, and the crowd seemed lost in his improvisation.

Ribot, who has played with everyone from Brother Jack McDuff to John Zorn, said he was honored to work with MMW on this tour, noting that he worked with Wood in one of his earliest bands, the Rootless Cosmopolitans, at the dawn of the bassist’s New York career.

Medeski Martin & Wood put together an eclectic, freewheeling and generous show in Cleveland. Small wonder the group has accumulated so many descriptors, including “avant-groove,” “avant-jazz” and, in Medeski’s accurate characterization, “wide open.” DB



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