Growing up as music lovers on the East Coast—especially if you’ve had any contact with the jamband scene here—it’s safe to say you had a friend in college who uttered the words “Medeski, Martin and Wood changed my life.” The trio, formed in New York City almost 20 years ago, has long had a knack for luring young String Cheese Incident or Phish fans into small, sweaty clubs and quaint theaters and blowing their minds with virtuosic jazz-based madness.
Still, can one band change a person’s life? Personally, you’d have to ask me about the Clash to get a “yes” on that one, but what’s absolutely certain is that the idea of playing in a band with zero boundaries changed the lives of three well-trained musicians named John Medeski, Billy Martin and Chris Wood, originally an acoustic jazz trio introduced to each other by Martin’s drum teacher Bob Moses, when they formed MMW in 1991.
I recently spoke with all three members of MMW individually on subjects ranging from the improvisation-heavy group’s seemingly never-ending connection with each other to their impending hiatus. For a band that has released over a dozen albums together—plus two with guitarist John Scofield—and enjoyed attention from a range of print media, MMW’s trio of passionate instrumentalists sure doesn’t seem tired of describing what brought them together in the first place.
“There is no leader and no formula,” bassist Wood says. “We’re never really sure what we’re going to do or how it will turn out. Things have always come about in an organic way for us…often it’s the music that shows us what direction to take. No one person is in control.”
Both Medeski and Martin told me that what has kept the band together so long is not only how much they still enjoy playing together but also the amount of music knowledge each of the diversely talented musicians glean from jamming with outside players.
“What keeps us coming back or going on together is what we bring back to share from the outside,” says drummer/percussionist Martin. “That infuses a new excitement about developing new repertoire and energy. It is like a marriage and we have to share things but also enjoy the separate parts of our singularity.”
“I’m not sure where our career is going, but I know that the only reason we have stayed together is because of the music,” pianist and keyboardist Medeski adds. “We still have fun and get a lot out of creating together, and doing all sorts of other projects keeps us growing as individuals, which feeds what we do when we get together. Not one of us is defined solely by MMW. Plus, we haven’t had that big hit we have to play every night that we hate. In terms of why we haven’t become sick of each other, we’re family, so we are way past the getting sick of each other part. It’s much deeper.”
Radiolarians, a three-part series of albums released between September 2008 and August of last year, injected a plethora of new inspiration and excitement—not to mention many new tunes—into a band that had perhaps begun to paint itself into a corner by attracting more and more of the sort of jamband-oriented fans who generally crave funky beats and “phatty” solos. Conversely, Radiolarians 1 alone features spacey Eno/Hassell experimental music, hard-charging jazz-funk along the lines of the Beastie Boys’ The In Sound From Way Out, dusty Latin acoustic-guitar-led cinematic dirges and classy, complex piano-focused jazz romps that fall somewhere between Art Tatum and “I Turn My Camera On”-era Spoon.
Ironically, the idea for creating three full albums in one year came not from listening to or playing music but from a science book. Actually, two books.
“The idea came from reading a book about intelligence in nature,” Medeski says. “It talked about a species of bird that returns every year with a new song for the year and never repeats itself in its lifetime. Sounded like our dream [as a band]. So we transposed the idea to writing a night’s worth of new material every time we went on tour that year, never to play it again. We would write it, explore it on the road and record it after the tour. Of course, we threw the theory of never playing the songs again out the back door. We’re not as hip as that bird.”