Thriving off risk-taking and improvisation, Medeski Martin & Wood have operated in an ever-evolving way since they started making music together nineteen years ago. Once you think you've figured out what they do, they're on to something else.
"We're different, we're changing all the time, but that's kind of the point," bassist Chris Wood says. He also thinks they're playing the best music they've ever played. Based on the performance I saw last December, I can understand why. It was the most dynamic and balanced I've seen them play. Interestingly enough, they were playing only music from the Radiolarians series, new material the band wrote and recorded in quick sessions.
I've been lucky enough to see Medeski Martin & Wood perform at least once a year since the mid-'90s. Some of those shows were misses, where the band never locked in together and took flight, while others were absolutely transcendent in the way they communicated with each other. It should say enough that there's always been something in the music that makes it consistently worth seeing year after year. What's even more fascinating is that with each passing year, I'm more and more impressed by the show they put on. They've never failed to challenge or surprise, or take the play-it-safe approach. That's why after nineteen years of playing together, their music sounds as fresh and forward-thinking as it did the first time I heard the abstract ideas and infectious grooves come off their early classics It's a Jungle In Here, Friday Afternoon In the Universe and Shack Man.
Seeing Chris' collaboration with his brother Oliver in the Wood Brothers further drives home that philosophical approach toward playing: it's all just music. Call it what you want, but it's just about creating great music. Five years ago, I wouldn't have ever imagined seeing Chris play harmonica, sing harmony vocals and complement his brother's guitar playing and lead vocals in such a compelling and deep way. But it shouldn't be a surprise; the course of Chris' career has always been about expanding musical languages and never doing what's expected.

I caught MMW up here in Burlington recently and I left saying, "I think I loved every second of that." That's really good for a two-set show.
It felt like a really well-balanced show. You covered a lot of ground stylistically, and at the same time there was a lot of free playing and improvisation. It felt like one of the most balanced times I've ever seen you play.
I guess doing all this new Radiolarians material has helped us explore a lot of new directions. Other people would call it eclectic or schizophrenic, but I like balanced. So, that's good.
Another thing is -- I'm sure maybe you see it vary city to city -- the audience has to be there too. And I think with the nature of your music, to really get into it, you can't half listen. I felt like that was the vibe of the room where everyone was really into it and focused, and not distracted with being in a club, drinking and doing whatever. It seemed like everyone was having a good time, but they were there listening. How'd you feel about it? Do you remember?
I don't remember super specifically, but overall this past tour has been better than ever, as well as the music. So, it's just something about doing this whole series, and doing it in such a small amount of time, and having all this new material. It's really good for us and it's good for the music. I really feel like these last couple tours, it's been the best playing we've ever done, I really think so. It's fun. It's exciting.
Yeah, it's really cool considering it's been about 19 years. That's really exciting that it still feels like your playing is getting better.
It really feels like that. We're older; our lives are getting more complicated. It's very different than it used to be in terms of the way we get together and make music. We used to live in the city, and we used to get together and sort of hang out and play all the time and make music. I think it took a while to relearn how to do it together once our lives became filled with families and mortgages, you know? [laughter] That's what I think is great about this series, is that it was really a structure we set up for ourselves where we were like, "OK, we're going to do this thing three times in one year where we get together, write this music, go on tour, and then record it." That's the kind of structure we needed to really get some work done. I feel like it worked out.
So there were a lot of surprises in those sessions?
Yeah, and it was fast and furious. We didn't allow ourselves a whole lot of time to come up with this stuff, because we were maybe writing for three, four days in order to come up with a complete record's worth of material and a whole night's worth of music. And then we played it night after night on the tour like that. There wasn't a lot of time to sit around and agonize. We had to just throw out a bunch of ideas and just go for it and see what happens. I think that's good for our style. That's how we made the kids' record [Let's Go Everywhere], too. We just went in there with no idea what we were going to do and wrote it in four days, and wrote the whole record. I think in some ways maybe it's better for us. [laughter] It's more like a jazz style ultimately. I mean if we had a rock 'n' roll budget, we can just sit around and agonize forever. I don't know if it would be any better. It'd be different, and we might drive ourselves crazy. When we do it fast, maybe that's as good as it gets, I don't know. At least for what it is.
Great things tend to get captured spontaneously.
I think that's the essence of what we do. And if we want to sculpt it after that, as long we have something that has a kind of magical spontaneity to it, we can work with it.
You were saying that your lives have drastically changed from when you started. How do you think that affects the music, or how do you think that plays into the way you communicate on stage?
Well, I think we used to spend a lot more time together, and literally living together on the road constantly, which is great for a lot of things. It's also really challenging. At this point, after having gone through all of that, now we sort of have our separate lives and we get together and make the music. I think there's a lot of other stuff going on in our lives personally, and musically, that make us, when we do get together, really appreciate each other all the more. And just enjoy playing together. We're a little older now and you just get the sense that there's no time to mess around anymore. You want to get to the point and make music as good as it can be. It feels good. I guess with this kind of music, it's good to just keep doing it. We're different. We're changing all the time, but that's kind of the point. That's why we named the band what we named it. The three of us -- that's the thread and it's never going to change. Any other image you want to try to attach to it is temporary.
What comes out of throwing someone like John Scofield into the mix? I'm curious because I know a couple of years ago you did a lot of touring with him after that record came out. You're adding another dimension to the way you guys play. When you guys went back to doing gigs as a trio, did you change at all?
It definitely changes the dynamic. Just having a fourth personality, another strong soloist like that. In some ways it's easier; it's sort of a no-brainer for us just to slip into being "the band." A quartet has a completely different dynamic than a trio. A trio you sort of get the feeling that each part is equally important. If you took away one of those things, it drastically changes the music. A quartet, already, you get more of the feel that someone is backing up someone else. It's not that equal conversation the way a trio is. It's almost like a law of nature that it makes it different. The thing with Scofield is that he's just so naturally coming from influences and backgrounds that just sit with what we do, rhythmically the styles of music he's into and his sort of jazz but groove sensibility in the lines and improvisation. A lot of the stuff he was part of is the stuff that influenced us. His Miles Davis, late electric Miles Davis sort of thing, and then a lot of his New Orleans kind of influences -- it's stuff that we're sort of influenced by as well. But with him, it's so effortless. We barely have to talk about the music; you just start playing and everything's kind of clear.