To a lot of music fans today, the word jazz still conjures images of trumpets, saxophones, splashy cymbals, upright bass and flute, thanks to Ron Burgundy. In a world dominated by hip-hop, pop, and alternative rock, jazz may seem like a musical predecessor; a genre decrepit and void of relevance in popular music today. This is far from the truth. In the case of the acid jazz trio Medeski, Martin & Wood, jazz has become an amalgamation of hip-hop, synthesizers, funk, and rock and roll. What had begun as a more traditional jazz trio in New York in the early ’90s has now transformed into an energetic, funkified improvisational powerhouse. Now armed with their own record label, Medeski, Martin & Wood (MMW) have the tools and freedom to herald in their new age of jazz fusion.
After spending seven years on Blue Note Records, the band decided to leave Blue Note and start their own label.
“It was just about time that we did it,” drummer Billy Martin said.
While the band did receive pressure from the major label over the years, it was the pressure the band put on themselves that would create the most stress.
“It was the expectations of a business that was not our own that caused the most pressure,” Martin said. “They let us do what we wanted to do, but we never took advantage of making more side projects.”
Now on their own label, the band has the freedom that every musician craves, and with that freedom comes the ability to create all of the pet projects that have been tabled over the years, such as Mago, the duet album which is two-thirds of Medeski, Martin & Wood. Featuring drummer Billy Martin and keyboardist John Medeski, the album has been a dream since 1989 when the two first began playing together in a New York apartment.
“There is a certain sound of organ and drums that I love,” said Martin. “We got to know each other through the music and we’ve always talked about doing a record.”
The other member of MMW, bassist Chris Wood, has been busy on his own projects as well. Teaming up with his brother Oliver Wood, the two formed the Wood Brothers, a guitar and bass duo rooted in blues and soul music.
While all three of the members remain busy outside of their own band, the trio does not lose focus on the music they make together.
“Anything we do outside of Medeski, Martin & Wood is going to come back into the band and influence it,” admits Martin. “We need that kind of interaction with other things to make ourselves better musicians and our band better.”
Aside from branching out to other projects, the group equally enjoys bringing in some friends to help their own music out. In 1997 the group joined legendary jazz guitarist John Scofield on his album A Go Go. Ever since, the band has hoped to reunite with Scofield to create another album. Now on their own record label, the group called up Scofield and began work on a more collaborative album.
The result was MMWs first release, Out Louder, on their new label. The album also spawned a world tour which the quartet is still finishing up. Having toured the States last winter, the group just returned from Japan to do a few more dates in the U.S., only to head back to Europe mid-summer.
Unfortunately, not every project has come to fruition. Almost a year ago, as the band was just starting its label, they were approached by another smaller label to create a children’s album. Given a small budget, the band agreed to do the album. After a short while, the album was completed and according to Martin was “one of the best MMW records.”
“We just had a lot of fun with it,” Martin said. “We wrote this stuff in two days and we did a really good job.”
Featuring raps by toddlers and songs about pirates and monsters that leave lint in your pocket, the band became truly excited for the release of this album, but problems arose.
Having been bought out by a larger record company, the independent label that warranted the children’s album is now in the position of convincing this larger label to release the record, an issue MMW has no control over. But according to Martin, the album, titled Let’s Go Everywhere, will see the shelves in the future.
For Billy Martin, the new label will help some of his earliest dreams come true. Growing up in the ’70s and ’80s in New York, hip-hop has played a large role in Martin’s life and also influenced his contribution to MMW. Martin has already worked with several DJs on some of their albums, and hopes to one day create an entirely hip-hop focused project.
“I don’t know if it will happen, but if it does I would be really excited,” said Martin. “Now that we own our own music it could be something that might happen.”
Back in the States for a few weeks, MMW will of course be in on the festival circuit. The trio will be playing two sets at this year’s Summer Camp Music Festival and the Martin and Medeski duo will play a special show at this year’s Bonnaroo. Having ultimate and total freedom, the future of Medeski, Martin & Wood is one of the most exciting and highly anticipated in the world of music.