Medeski Martin & Wood are at a hopeless point of their career. Not the way you may think, though; bassist Chris Wood says that this is a positive thing. They have reached a point where they are unconcerned with trying to play a certain way, or to be in a certain place, or be everything to everybody. They are simply hopeless—resigned to ride the wave that is already carrying them, and that has carried them through much of their professional career.
Their new release Free Magic is the culmination of five years of live performances and endless recordings that has been democratically chosen by the members of the group as their best stuff.
Wood says that the challenge of choosing tracks for a live record lies in the eternal conundrum of being able to remember how you felt about a given performance when you performed it. The key to hearing it with a true listener’s ear comes only with time and distance. The idea of “true hopelessness” comes into play here as well. If you go into a performance trying to play a certain way, and you don’t achieve what you supposedly set out to do, then you may not feel good about the way you played even though the audience has no idea about what your own preconceptions were. This is where the time and distance are essential to forget about your own mood during the performance.
“I never known what we’re gonna do before we get on stage. I know what we won’t do,” Wood says. This is the magic that keeps MMW fans coming back for more. The group’s live shows have as much of a cultlike following as any group out there. There are usually dancers dancing, tapers taping, and groovers grooving out. This particular show on Saturday (Oct. 6) at the Massry Center for the Arts (and this tour) may be a little different, however, as the group are playing rooms that are geared towards a sit-down listening experience. This absolutely means even more subtleties than usual, and a severe focus on musicality on the part of the artists and the audience. They are also using all acoustic instruments for this run.
Although everyone brings “tunes” and “ideas” to the table, Wood says that the true magic of MMW is in their spontaneous composition. Wood’s tune “Doppler,” which starts the new album, can be streamed from the group’s website (mmw.net) for free right now. It makes use of the Bailaphone, which is a mallet instrument that Billy Martin has used throughout their career. It gives off some earthy tones that blend especially well with the upright bass.
Touring is hard work; there’s barely any “alone time” to really practice, and you often have to “boil down” your warm-up routine to the bare essentials. Exercising—keeping your body loose and fully functional—is very important, and so is eating well. All groups have certain habits or rituals they settle into. For MMW it’s food. “It always helps if we can eat a meal together, or better yet if we can cook a meal together,” says Wood. This is almost more important than practicing together to get everyone in the same headspace.
It’s hard to exactly describe MMW, but according to Chris Wood, “We’re just a three-headed monster.”
Medeski Martin & Wood will perform Saturday (Oct. 6) in the Picotte Recital Hall at the Massry Center for the Arts (College of Saint Rose, 1002 Madison Ave., Albany). Tickets are $30. For more info, call 337-4871.