Death Groove From Medeski, Martin & Wood

Radiolarians III is out and I haven’t even finished with II? These guys are killing me.

No, really. They always have, ever since Boston’s Accurate Records sent me a copy of Notes From the Underground back in the early ‘90s. The coming together of groove and free improvisational directions—with the emphasis on the latter—gave me hope that jazz had found new, contemporary life. Even as the emphasis changed to the former (thanks, Phish heads) the Rabbit still got his thumper on with MMW. After all, it was never one thing or another but all things together. Weird. And they always mixed it up. For every Shack-mack they put out there was a Tonic.

That seems to be the thing with MMW fans. They tend to classify their recordings as groove or not so groove. Like I said before, I always favored the not-so-groove. And also like I said before, it was never really one thing or another. Everything was strong. In all ways. The beat, the bop, the moody grooves.

Radiolarians II is the smartest blend of all of the above. You’ll recognize the feel of some of these numbers from MMW’s previous work. But it’s not been done quite this well. Grooves, sonic diversity, free-thinking improvs, smart, multi-tiered percussion and mood, plenty of mood, swap places faster than comics on open-mic night. Just when you get hooked on a riff, it deconstructs, turns a thematic corner,  flips like a coin and lands on edge. Sure, it’s still money but it’s done something amazing.

Billy Martin gets a lot of credit for being tight and driving—in the old parlance, “deep in the groove” (don’t let us use that word again)—but the Rabbit thinks his attractiveness comes from a certain slap-dash feel to his rhythms, his ability to push and pull and sound devil-may-care sloppy even as he promulgates detailed poly-rhythms. A sound-wise drummer with a sense of color, Martin brings it all together here on the unpredictable “ijiji.” Nice! Then there’s “Chasen vs. Suribachi” in which rhythms downshift or hit overdrive backed by a plethora of noise including radio static. Sound, indeed.

Same thing with bassist Chris Wood. He can give you greasy, deep-fat-fried electric or astute acoustic, as called for. He plucks, he bows, he strums. He’s as clean as a white shirt one moment, down-and-dirty the next. When playing upright, with Medeski on piano (“Padrecito”), they come up with a tango-like dexterity that even jazz purists will dig.

Medeski’s ability to apply just the right sound from his keyboards adds to the attraction. Dig the bluesy lounge feel he puts to “Baby Let Me Follow You Down”—the title seems a ready-made lead line to a lyric—and how he pulls the history of balladeer lament from the acoustic piano before getting all whiney on wah-wah synthesizer. The echoing clavinet of “Junkyard” gives the tune mystic airs.

And yes, they rock. ”Amber Gris” (check out the black-and-white video that Martin put together for the tune) shows their propensity to break off a piece of riff and beat us silly with it. And just when you’re crying for more, the tune takes a turn, like a pirouette, dancing on Wood’s delicate bass and acoustic piano tinkle before rising up to beat us some more.

The Radiolarians reverse method of creation—taking and making tunes on the road before recording them in the studio—seems to bring out the best in these guys. Which means we have to go out and get III even before the promised check-in-the-mail arrives. —Cabbage Rabbit

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