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Music Review: Billy Martin/John Medeski – Mago

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For well over a decade, Medeski, Martin and Wood (henceforth referred to as “MMW”) has been to acid jazz what Crosby, Stills & Nash is to folk-rock: a group at the top of the heap consisting of three extraordinary talents, and whose main releases are richly supplemented with temporary configuration change-ups and notable side projects. Heck, MMW even have their own Neil Young in John Scofield, and the four released a Deja Vu of sorts just last year in Out Louder. With the release this week of Mago, MMW has opened up a “Crosby & Nash” chapter in their saga.

Mago, quite simply, is the result of a collaboration between drummer Billy Martin and organist John Medeski; MMW sans bassist Chris Wood. In reality, Martin and Medeski first got together back in 1989 before adding Wood to the mix, and they intended to record as a duet way back when. The runaway success of MMW got in the way of those plans until now.

Coming on the heels of the Scofield collaboration and Wood’s own side project Ways Not to Lose by the Wood Brothers (which is still on my “to listen to” list), this was as good of a time as any for Billy and John to fill this square. Last summer they laid down tracks in a New York studio in two days time with Martin manning the drums and Medeski working his magical Hammond B-3.

So what does Martin and Medeski sound like when they’re not bringing the Wood? To use yet another rock analogy, it’s a lot like listening to a Donald Fagen record: most people probably won’t notice the missing member, but the dedicated Steely Dan fans will catch on and probably like it, anyway. MMW puts the acid in acid jazz, and so does MM. The acidic levels varies, but you wouldn’t confuse this with MMW’s last effort as a trio, the relatively accessible End of the World Party. On the other hand, it’s not the total Chemical Brothers-type freakfest that is The Dropper. It does, however, have it’s wiggy moments, and there seems to be more emphasis on musicianship than on some of the most recent MMW efforts.Ignore, for this release, the guy on the right.

With Chris Wood temporarily out of the picture, you’ll undeniably pick up on the lack of his psychedelic Ron Carter sound, but Medeski is filling in all the void with the B-3’s bass pedals. And quite admirably, too, as it turns out; he is at times just as active with his feet as he is with his hands, and he’s just as apt to go into the higher register as his absent partner.

Within Martin and Medeski’s narrow mission to go only where Jimmy Smith would have ventured while trippin’ badly, the tracks show a good degree of diversity. Songs like “Introducing Mago” and “L’Aventura” suggests what Cecil Taylor might do if he ever got hold of an organ while someone was rolling the tape. If you like to hear these guys totally cut loose in a free setting like I do, it’s a real treat.

And then there are songs that veer more toward the pursuit of the deep groove. Tracks such as “Mojet” and “Bamboo Pants” perform this task wonderfully, and in that familiar MMW fashion, too. “Apology” takes the listener down a gospel side road, while “Thundercloud” is a showcase for Martin’s flair for heavily staccatoed rhythms, and “Bonfa” has a nice, New Orleans vibe to it.

The songs that have the greatest success are the ones that put both the dissonance and the groove together. The track that does this the best out of the whole record is “Crustaceatron,” which also infuses some hip-hop sensibility that no one has done better at combining with challenging jazz than MMW… and now, MM. It just so happens that M & M put together a video for this track that you can check out here. If I’m not mistaken, I think Wood even makes a very brief appearance in it, for what it’s worth:

So if you are in need of a MMW fix, Mago should more than tide you over until Chris Wood rejoins the fold. You might even find yourself looking forward to the next Martin and Medeski release. In any case, it’s further proof that the parts of MMW are just as great as the whole.

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About Pico

  • Mark Saleski

    suggests what Cecil Taylor might do if he ever got hold of an organ while someone was rolling the tape.

    oh man, i am so buying this disc!

    nice review.

  • http://daslob.blogspot.com/ Pico

    Thanks, Mark!

    I even avoided using the term “whack jazz” this time, although you know I was tempted ;&)

  • http://www.butterflyfiction.com/journal/ Connie Phillips

    Congrats! This article has been forwarded to the Advance.net websites and Boston.com.

  • http://daslob.blogspot.com/ Pico

    Much appreciated, Connie.

  • http://www.lookoutforhope.com Tom Johnson

    Great review, Pico. I was almost certainly going to buy it anyway, but I’m even more convinced of it’s certainty of necessity now. And now I know about the Wood Brothers, too – that’s a brand new piece of news to me.

  • http://daslob.blogspot.com/ Pico

    Gratified by your comments, TJ.

    I had a suspicion that the Wood Brothers record was already covered here somewhere and voila, here it is:

    Ways Not To Lose review