One of the most interesting aspects of Medeski, Martin and Wood is how easily one can chart the development of this band, simply by listening to their albums in chronological order. The first album, Notes From the Underground , is practically straight-up jazz. Next came, It’s a Jungle in Here, their most light-natured album. This album, while still rooted in jazz, definitely has traces of a style unique to the band. Friday Afternoon in the Universe further exhibited the MMW brand of jazz; traditional combined with hip-hop, funk with traces of the blues, all coming together in the right proportions to create a permagroove. With Shack-Man , this style had become the band. Gone were the new spins on old tunes like “Caravan” or “Moti-Mo”, the music being created at the Shack in 1996 was all their own, and it was grooving. Shack-Man seems to represent the pinnacle of MMW’s brand of jazz, as listeners have come to know them. From here on, it seems the band will be evolving in new, uncharted directions.
It is these exact directions that the band explores on ‘Combustication. A paradoxical brand of MMW is unveiled within, whereby the listener can easily identify the MMW “sound”, yet this aforementioned sound has been, by and large reworked. Combustication is not the rump-shaker of an album that its predecessor is, yet it is also much more complex. Perhaps most notable throughout this album is Chris Wood’s bass work. It is undeniable and appears to power many of the tracks. Three of the tracks on the album have guest appearances by DJ Logic. Logic met up with the band during their Knitting Factory sessions and the two have worked closely ever since. His presence adds another dimension to the already complex sound of MMW, making songs like the first track “Sugar Craft” an absolute treat. The best track with Logic, however, is the appropriately named “Church of Logic.” Here, Logic takes center stage and samples not only the traditional DJ “scratch”, but also fiddles expertly with different “house” sound effects and even throws in some distorted barking for good measure. This entire piece is, of course, backed expertly by MMW.
With this new sound, the band sometimes sounds a bit lost, or maybe their just really taking their time. In pieces such as “Nocturne”, it is the bass of Chris Wood that leads the band through their musical fog. The “Non-Logic” highlights of the album are the beautifully flowing “Latin Shuffle”, which despite clocking in at nine minutes, moves seamlessly through complex changes and the ultra-funky, super-sexy “Hey-Hee-Hi-Ho”, the only song ever to successfully integrate hand-clapping and have it sound good. Also of note is the cover of Sly and the Family Stone’s “Everyday People.” While you possess an excellent musical ear if you can pick up even the slightest of similarities between the two, the song is marvelously arranged.
Perhaps the only shortcoming of this album is the track “Whatever Happened to Gus”, where guest Steve Cannon makes a venture into the spoken word. It’s not the backup musicians that are off-kilter, as much as it is the words and generally lacking inflection of the poet. One must wonder why MMW didn’t pick a more traditional, more famous reading. But then again, doing things traditionally never was their bag anyway.