Medeski Martin & Wood Enter the ‘Omnisphere’

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Drummer Billy Martin (left), keyboardist John Medeski and bassist Chris Wood all have recording projects outside of their trio.

(Photo: Jimmy & Dena Katz)

Actively disconnecting ideas to permit others to sprout was amply on display during the 2018 Montreal Jazz Festival, where Martin performed alongside fellow drummer Mark Guiliana. Rather than battle against Guiliana on a full kit, Martin deftly produced a succession of percussion items—gongs, shakers, gourds, ocarinas, cowbells—saliently and wittily acting as a foil for Guiliana’s breakbeats. This curatorial attitude to musical commentary bespeaks Martin’s lineage: His father was a classical violinist who performed on 1961’s Focus, a Third Stream album by Stan Getz and Eddie Sauter.

Martin remains a committed educator, serving on the faculty of The New School and conducting master classes at major institutions like NEC and New York University. But recently, he has become focused on a new position.

“Karl Berger handed over to me his role as the president, CEO and executive director of the Creative Music Studio, a progressive organization he co-founded that promotes a universal music vocabulary, all the possibilities of music and sound expression, which ties into what Omnisphere is about,” Martin said.

The nonprofit CMS was founded in 1971 by Berger, his wife, Ingrid Sertso, and Ornette Coleman to foster cross-genre improvisation. It has hosted performers like John Cage, Cecil Taylor, Naná Vasconcelos and Carla Bley over the years.

“We’re based in Full Moon Resort, in Big Indian, New York, offering a retreat for those wishing to complement their academic studies with a more personal philosophical approach and for established artists to develop interdisciplinary skills,” Martin said.

Before NEC studies with Dave Holland, George Garzone and Geri Allen, and lessons from Chicago Symphony alum Robert Passenger, bassist Wood had some formative experiences in the classical realm, playing contrabass in the school orchestra. But Wood’s father, a Harvard-educated molecular biologist, was active on the Cambridge folk scene in the ’50s and collaborated with a young Joan Baez. Wood’s childhood home brimmed with albums by blues and roots artists like Josh White, Leadbelly and Lightnin’ Hopkins.

“To me,” Wood said over the phone from his Nashville home, “the blues and the black church music that spawned Ray Charles is as much a part of Americana as bluegrass and Appalachian traditions.”

Wood was pulled further in that direction when his mother died from the neurodegenerative disease ALS in 2007, tightening his bonds with his older brother, Oliver, a guitarist, vocalist and songwriter. The siblings formed The Wood Brothers, a band currently working the Americana circuit. At one point, it even opened for MMW during 2006 and 2007 tours.

“When MMW cooled off, I gave up our eventual life of having a booking agent, tour manager and roadies, and started from scratch again with my brother, back in a minivan, sharing hotel rooms again, beginning a slow, but constant, rise to the middle,” Wood wryly recalled.

The Wood Brothers’ latest album, One Drop Of Truth (Honey Jar), which also includes versatile multi-instrumentalist Jano Rix, showcases the siblings’ simpatico relationship, and the music video for the drolly ironic “Happiness Jones” features Wood’s impressively lithe dance moves.

The songs make their own claim to Americana, and such narratives as “Can’t Look Away” walk a line between what is expected of the genre and more equivocal meditations, counseling listeners not to default to predictable societal conclusions based on stereotypes.

Not a million miles away from this territory is Medeski’s collaboration with Jack DeJohnette, Larry Grenadier and longtime MMW sparring partner John Scofield on the 2017 album Hudson (Motéma). All the members of that supergroup live in New York’s Hudson Valley, and the music is informed by their relatively rural locale. The eponymous track shares some of the somber vibe of Omnisphere, with the added acidic twist of Scofield’s entreating guitar.

A discussion with Medeski about DeJohnette’s “Great Spirit Chant,” which closes the album, uncovers the pianist’s more-than-passing interest in Native American culture.

“My family and I have really close connections with that community,” Medeski said. “We built a sweat lodge on our property and participate in those purifying ceremonies; we keep in touch with nature.”

This from a man who had to move from New York City because, as he confessed, “It was turning me into a jerk.”

Balanced auras are part of the chemistry that has kept Medeski Martin & Wood ongoing all these years. (The musicians’ commitment to education has extended to a long-running annual MMW music camp in the Catskills.) Medeski—who was adopted and just acquainted with three younger half-sisters he knew nothing about until recently—found instant filial solace with comrades Martin and Wood, when they would gather at the drummer’s funky Brooklyn apartment back in 1991.

The three, it appeared, cared about the same things: They sought additive-free food and resisted the prevailing dog-eat-dog system. Above all, they craved sonic and rhythmic simpatico and to create in the moment, and found it together.

Where Medeski would spirit cleanse with a sweat lodge, Martin built a Japanese-style tea house out of an old shed where he now lives in New Jersey, a private place conducive to making art pieces and playing solo drums freestyle, seeking to impress no one.

Despite the kinetic energy of the band’s live shows, MMW’s winning formula actually might be its members’ mutual modesty, something that surprised Pierson as they held back during much of the Omnisphere project.

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