Medeski Martin & Wood, or MMW, is a jazz trio originally formed in Brooklyn, NY in 1991, consisting of John Medeski on keyboards, Billy Martin on drums and percussion, and Chris Wood on double bass and bass guitar.
Medeski Martin & Wood was initially a straightforward acoustic jazz trio, but Medeski quickly added a Hammond organ when the difficulties of touring with a piano became apparent. This more soul jazz oriented direction led to the incorporation of other musical genres, including funk, hip hop, trip hop and free jazz. Medeski has also utilized a number of different keyboard instruments, such as a mellotron, a melodica, and a clavinet, among others.
With each successive album, Medeski Martin & Wood have become harder to pin down. Having long ago transcended their soulful organ-groove basics to enter a more expansive world of snappy beats and backbeats, eerie atmospheric effects, post-lounge riffing, and the occasional jazz overture, they occupy their own category.
They have also worked with a number of other artists, including John Scofield.
1991. Beginnings and Endings.
The Cold War was done, the Gulf War just begun and somewhere in the heart of Brooklyn, Medeski Martin and Wood were born in the sun. Playing music together for the first time that summer there was an instant connection - described by all three as being very natural, very organic and very strong. As complicated as their individual pasts might have been up to that point, their collective future together as a band had just become extremely simple - stick together and make music.
This is exactly what happened.
The trio grew and evolved as naturally and organically as their first jam session. They had no real plan and kinda made things up as they went along (still do in fact). First, it was the gigs at the village gate, then opening it up a bit at the old knitting factory. The guys held onto their various side-gigs and all three continued to work with other artists and groups (still do in fact) but the trio was un-derivative, un-jazz and unlike anything they had ever experienced before. They were having a great time.
Billy's pop's place in Jersey was the band's "office" where they would use the computer, the copy machine and general office supplies to create press kits and book tours. What started out as a john lurie joke became the first official name of the band COLTRANE'S WIG which was quickly replaced by the law-firm like MEDESKI MARTIN AND WOOD (friend and fellow lounge lizard oren bloedow suggested they use their last names… Billy picked the order). Soon, the first little tour was booked around the northeast. Packing into Billy's old ford van, they would take off for short runs, hanging out, sleeping on floors and coming back home. Only a few months after their initial get together, MMW went into BABY MONSTER studios to record their debut album - NOTES FROM THE UNDERGROUND which they released independently on hap-jones records.
1992. On the map?
Sort-of. With a record to their credit, solid gigs in NYC and a few short runs out into the rest of the land MMW had officially risen above the notes from the underground and started making some noise. Still taking baby steps, letting things develop naturally, and just making music (which at this point in time had the ability to change in style nightly… depending on the place, time and space they were playing). Watching the boys play back then (and now) it was (and is) obvious that they were not trying to become rock stars, or jazz legends…they weren't trying to become anything other than themselves.
Despite their commitment to each other, Medeski Martin and Wood still wasn't a full time job. In order to make a living (and experiment in sound) they continued to work as individuals within the deeply rich mines of New York City's downtown scene - an incestuous melting pot of music, style and sounds. Recordings, gigs and tours with other artists and other bands was a way of life for Billy, John and Chris and it was through one of these tours that MMW hooked up with their unofficial fourth member - LIZ PENTA.
Liz (who booked CBGB'S GALLERY at the time) was in Europe on tour with Marc Ribot's band (The Rootless Cosmopolitans) which included Sim Caine and Chris Wood. Chris told Liz about MMW and Liz convinced the band to play CB's later in the year. They did. Liz freaked (passing them the legendary post-show "note") and kept bringing them back, drawing more people every time.
First major commitment was the record deal. Manager #1, MISSY ROGERS, procured a deal with GRAMAVISION (pre-RYKO days) who in turn released "It's a Jungle in Here" in the summer of 1993. The deal put M M and W on paper, bound together officially for the first time. That same year the trio repeated their vows, this time by signing papers together for a vehicle - the fabled, no-named R/V. With new records and their new vehicle, they continued their journey - non-stop touring.
1994. You're either on the bus or you're off.
Having recently left CB's gallery the band invited MS. PENTA (see 1992) to join them, in the R/V, as road manager. The first run of the year saw co-billing with the NYC collective LOST TRIBE. Then a four month journey took them on a full sweep of the United States and Canada. MMW (who by now had the road down to an organic science) would find the closest r/v park, campground or state park…waking up either in a sketchy KOA or in the midst of sacred grounds.
Spending every day together for weeks and months on end, every night a new city, a new resting spot, a new slice of life. Shit was crazy. Playing together and living together…in one small, but recreational, vehicle a family was formed. Everyone had a role: Medeski was the cook, Martin was the mechanic, Wood was the organizer, and Liz did the biz (this was pre-cell phone days too). All four shared the driving responsibilities. The four way marriage was working… and the music was flowing. The band took four days off from touring that summer to document some of the new sounds resulting in the DAVID BAKER co-produced FRIDAY AFTERNOON IN THE UNIVERSE.
1995. New year's resolutions.
Liz, will you be our full time manager? She said yes. The band played on.
Her first move was to find the group a real agent and with some help from everyone's adopted sister, and current fabulous babe/road manager, INA JACOBS they hired a punk-rock outfit, RAVE BOOKING, that instantly put the band on another long 4 month tour. Living in New York City is all about downsizing (it's the lack of space y'know?) and by this time in life the band decided to downsize completely. They were on tour SO OFTEN that they gave up their apartments in the city because… they were never home. And the hard-work started to pay off. Creeping out from the underground, it became strangely obvious, that the momentum was shifting, that things were slowly taking off, that they were selling more records and attracting more fans everywhere they went. from every corner of the US, to EUROPE and even JAPAN, MMW was planting flags… all over the map.
MEG ENNS escaped Atlanta, Ga where she had owned and operated HOMAGE (a coffeehouse/ club/art gallery and favorite venue for MMW) to go on tour as merchandiser, soon to be tour manager, to present day president of INDIRECTO (MMW's merchandise company).
1996. The year of the shack.
If the band felt the momentum shifting in 95, 96 might have been the year it became official. They sold the r/v and stared touring by bus; landed a spot on the h.o.r.d.e. tour and recorded their best selling album to date - the legendary "Shack-Man". No MMW story would be complete without a nod to the hawaii shack that serves as the band's home away from home.
Not to be confused with SHACKLYN, MMW's eastern most bat cave in the back-alleys of Brooklyn, THE SHACK is located deep in the heart of HAWAII's big island. you'll need a guide to find it and an ideal candidate would be it's owner MR. CARL GREEN - an old friend of BOB MOSES who introduced the band to his special enclave and the accompanying tree-house which CARL calls home. Nestled along shores of pristine ocean and surrounded by timeless jungle, the shack became the MECCA of MMW and the boys decided to rent the spot full-time, year round. With solar powered energy, a few generators, and the guidance of david baker, the band immortalized the experience by rolling the tape for a month in June. On a shoe-string budget, the band delivered "SHACK-MAN" to Grammavision in july… and became official free agents.
By the time "Shack-Man" was released later that summer the band had cut-back on the marathon touring, limiting their runs to 6 weeks or less. And to celebrate the release of the new record MMW kept it close to home and curated an 8 week celebration with a Monday night residency at the KNITTING FACTORY. These SHACK PARTIES became a testament to the past, present and future of MMW with highly anticipated sold-out shows that brought incredible excitement to the air…and guests to the stage, including the debut of their affiliation with DJ Logic who was asked to spin records in between sets and also join them on stage to jam.
As noted, the past few years witnessed a general vibe that SOMETHING was going on, that the tide was turning, that the band was growing, that shit was changing. Slow and steady wins the race. But nothing could prepare them for the pleasant surprise of what happened next. By the time word got out that MMW was free and clear of a record deal, a very serious bidding-war was called to order. The biz was abuzz. In sum there were no fewer than 17 labels courting the services of this intriguing instrumental trio. Feeling like the label and its chief (the legendary BRUCE LUNDVALL) ultimately understood their music best and assured them plenty of room to grow… in any direction… MMW settled into their new home - BLUE NOTE RECORDS.
1998 - 2005. The Blue Note years.
Their first release on the new label was Combustication in 1998. Recording sessions took place in Manhattan, and the album featured DJ Logic scratching and sampling on three tracks as he had done live during the Shack-Man tour. It was a slower and less groove-based sound than Shack-Man and showed the group's continued growth. The tracks included the Sly Stone hit "Everyday People," which begins by deconstructing the tune to the point of rhythmic obscurity only to be returned to the song's more familiar pop sound. Another track featured the traditional Hawaiian tune "No Ke Ano Ahiahi," perhaps a lingering mood from the band's Hawaiian retreat.
Released in 2000, Tonic was MMW's second full-length album on the Blue Note label. Tonic was a return to the group's first release, Notes from the Underground. The album is a live recording which was assembled over a nine-day period while the band played at the popular New York club also called Tonic. The set list included pieces by John Coltrane, Duke Ellington, Billy Roberts, and Bud Powell. The band masterfully worked in their various rhythmic pleasures covering swing, Latin, soul, and even Jimi Hendrix on their cover of "Hey Joe." Also in 2000, MMW played to sold out arenas while touring with the Dave Matthews Band.
In December of 2000, Medeski, Martin & Wood released The Dropper. The album was recorded in the Brooklyn, New York, studio the group built to create the album. Many of The Dropper's tracks evolved out of experimentation with new instruments and sounds. On the surface, The Dropper may be called avant-garde noise. The album features both the trio's hard groove on several tracks and introduces a dark and moody tone similar to that of Radiohead.
April of 2002 saw the release of Uninvisible, an even more wildly experimental album that picked up where The Dropper left off. The release saw their music being brought to an even wider audience than they enjoyed before, being well-received by fans of jazz fusion, jam bands, and experimental music in general. The album featured a brash five-piece horn section from the Brooklyn-based Antibalas Afrobeat Orchestra, turntablists DJ Olive and DJ P Love, and, for a spoken-word number, craggy-voiced Southern rock eccentric Col. Bruce Hampton.
End of the World Party (Just in Case) followed two years later in 2004 and continued the musical trends of Uninvisible. Produced by the band and Dust Brother John King, End of the World Party (Just in Case) was the end result of group improvisations on stage and in the group's Brooklyn studios from which melodic motifs and polyrhythmic beats were sculpted into a dozen comparatively short tracks in the four to five minute range. The song "End of the World Party" would later be featured on the show Grey's Anatomy and can be found on the show's soundtrack. Although the album failed to achieve a breakthrough mainstream success, End of the World Party (Just in Case) is generally seen to be more accessible to non-jazz listeners than most previous MMW albums.
The retrospective Note Bleu: The Best of the Blue Note Years 1998-2005 was released in 2006 as the band departed from the label.
2006 - Present. Continued innovation.
No longer signed to anyone else's record label, the band established their own label, Indirecto Records. It was said to be an outlet for the band's music as well as a return to the methodology of the band's early years: releasing their own music, their own way, in its own time.
The trio's first Indirecto release, Out Louder, came in September of 2006 and was a four-way collaboration with guitarist John Scofield, which true-to-form is heavy on group improvisation, irresistible grooves, rich harmonies, and strong melodies. It was the first album released under the name "Medeski Scofield Martin & Wood," since 1998's A Go Go was released under Scofield's name alone. "A Go Go was John's record and we were essentially sidemen, where Out Louder musically comes from all of us" explained Wood.
In 2008, the band did yet another career-first, releasing an all-children's album titled Let's Go Everywhere on Little Monster Records. Two more MMW albums would follow later in the year, Zaebos: Book of Angels Vol.11, which featured the trio playing the compositions of John Zorn, and Radiolarians 1, the first in a planned trio of albums to be released on the band's Indirecto label.