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Music Review: Medeski Martin & Wood – Radiolarians: The Evolutionary Set

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Far be it from Medeski Martin & Wood — an avant-jazz trio that has been subverting and twisting jazz genre conventions for close to two decades now — to continue to write, record, tour and follow the well-worn path that most musicians consistently travel. For its latest project, Medeski Martin & Wood turned that formula around, composing songs and honing them on tour before stepping into the studio to record.

The result was The Radiolarian Series, a three-volume undertaking that saw Vol. 1 being released in September 2008, Vol. 2 in April, and Vol. 3 in August. Now, all three have been released together, alongside a wealth of bonus material as Radiolarians: The Evolutionary Set from Indirecto Records.

Radiolarians refers to a kind of amoeba that grows a mineral skeleton around itself in a reversal of normal biological order — an apt comparison to Medeski Martin & Wood’s ambitious project that is every bit as intricate as the biological phenomena for which it’s named.

Medeski Martin & Wood offer up an ever-shifting amalgam of sounds on all three Radiolarians records that smoothly transitions from more traditional jazz fare (well, as traditional as these guys get) to gospel, funk, and blues sounds to a wide array of world music — often within the same piece.

Most of the pieces on the three albums have an undeniable live-oriented spontaneity to them that threatens to turn a 90-degree corner at any moment, and it’s on this kind of jam band sound that Medeski Martin & Wood has built its reputation, whether or not the material was conceived or focused in a live environment.

Still, Medeski Martin & Wood never succumbs to the jam band tendency to eventually fade into background music, with all sounds eventually melding into one another to create a pleasant, but hardly aurally arresting, din. Just pick a song at random, and you’ll find enough complexity and genre mash-up to stave off any notion of sameness or monotony. The Radiolarians albums offer more than enough musical evolution to justify the moniker this extensive box set has been given.

In addition to the original albums, which each come equipped with one bonus track here, The Evolutionary Set includes a live album, a remix album, a double vinyl LP set, and a feature length documentary about the band on DVD.

The live album, titled Explorarians, includes eight tracks culled mostly from Radiolarians II. The remix album, titled Remixolarians, features ten tracks from all three albums remixed by people like DJ Logic, Dan the Automator, Scotty Hard, and other DJs and producers. Each vinyl LP contains five songs selected from the three albums.

The documentary film, Fly in a Bottle, was directed by drummer Billy Martin and features a look at the band at home, in the studio and on tour. Included alongside the nearly 90-minute documentary on the DVD is a music video for “Amber Gris” from Radiolarians II and several short experimental films.

The Evolutionary Set is an extraordinarily comprehensive look at a single body of work, and it should allow Medeski Martin & Wood fans the opportunity to experience the band like never before.

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About Dusty Somers

Dusty Somers is a Seattle-based editor and writer. He is a member of the Online Film Critics Society and Seattle Theater Writers.