At the end of the trio’s first set, drummer Billy Martin used a somewhat cursory album plug to offer a mission statement for the accessory tour on which Medeski, Martin and Wood have embarked. Free Magic, he said, is a return to the acoustic foundations and sense of generous improvisation upon which the group first rallied in New York’s burgeoning “downtown” jazz scene—that is, pretty much what one would expect from that scene’s biggest export, whose tours have grown sporadic between the members’ other projects.
“Acoustic,” in MMW’s case, is not a spirit of minimalism. Bassist Chris Wood swapped his upright for two different electrics and a host of effects, while Martin literally brought all his bells and whistles, including an abbreviated set of gamelan gongs and stuff that made the audience whisper “What’s that?” in unison when he selected it from his table. Pianist John Medeski, though, left the Rhodes, B3, Clavinet and synthesizers at home this time around, opting for melodica, breath-powered accordion, prepared piano, Shruti box, and some crazy bassoon-looking thing, as his acoustic alternatives.
If anything, this configuration allowed the group to get more abstract than the soul-jazz-oriented material generally suited to their organ-trio format. Sure, there were a couple standards, some New Orleans marches, and the skittering pocket funk that is nearly synonymous with their brand and has generated a peculiar audience of hippies, hipsters and old-school hepcats over the years, but the band were at their most creative when the formula got loose and a simple tambourine groove (Martin is a virtuoso on the pedestrian instrument) or happenstance bass figure began to drive things into uncharted waters. The first set closed with Medeski on a wooden flute, Martin shuffling on plastic coat hangers and Wood playing his Hofner hollow-body electric bass through effects that made it sound like an old mattress spring (likely the album’s abstract title track). The whole thing built into a grooving cover of Elvis Presley’s “Suspicious Minds.”
After a second-set bebop opener that included quotations of “On Broadway” and “Caravan,” perhaps to remind the audience that this was a jazz show after all, things grew immediately darker with Medeski intoning a Radiohead-sounding melody over Wood’s strummed chords. Medeski’s most dexterous moment of the night came next when he propped a hand-pumped Shruti box on top of his piano, soloed with his right on the melodica and tapped an occasional piano key with the melodica in between. The effect was an Eastern-tinged drone, supplemented by Wood’s bowed upright and Martin’s strange bowed wire instrument. Most avant jazz musicians would take this formula out to its freest limit, forsaking pulse and harmonic center entirely, but even in MMW’s deepest explorations, they were never more than a step or two away from that ubiquitous junkyard groove.
So, it was fitting, and traditional really, that the show should draw to a close with the trio huddled at the front of the stage, Wood with his upright, Medeski on melodica and Martin back on the plastic hangers, vamping like a New Orleans scramble band in an art-school parking lot.