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Medeski Martin & Wood: 'Combustication'

Combustication  (1998,  68.37)  ***½/T½

Sugarcraft
Just Like I Pictured it
Start/Stop
Nocturne
Hey-Hee-Hi-Ho
Whatever Happened to Gus
Latin Shuffle
Everyday People
Coconut Boogaloo
Church of Logic
No Ke Ano Ahiahi
Hypnotized
Medeski Martin & Wood: 'The Dropper'

The Dropper  (2000,  51.13)  ***½/TTT

We Are Rolling
Big Time
Felic
Partido Alto
Illnization
Bone Digger
Note Bleu
The Dropper
Philly Cheese
Blunt
Sun Sleigh
Tsukemono
Shacklyn Knights

Norah 6
Medeski, Martin & Wood, 'Uninvisible'

Uninvisible  (2002,  50.25)  ***½/T

Uninvisible
I Wanna Ride You
Your Name is Snake Anthony
Pappy Check
Take Me Nowhere
Retirement Song
Ten Dollar High
Where Have You Been?
Reprise
Nocturnal Transmission
Smoke
First Time Long Time
The Edge of Night
Off the Table
Medeski Martin & Wood: 'End of the World Party (Just in Case)'

End of the World Party (Just in Case)  (2004,  53.49)  ****/TTT½

Anonymous Skulls
End of the World Party
Reflector
Bloody Oil
New Planet

Mami Gato
Shine it
Curtis
Ice
Sasa
Midnight Poppies/Crooked Birds
Queen Bee
Medeski Martin & Wood: 'Let's Go Everywhere'

Let's Go Everywhere  (2008,  39.13)  ****/T

Waking Up
Let's Go Everywhere
Cat Creeps
The Train Song
Where's the Music
Pat a Cake
Pirates Don't Take Baths
Far East Sweets
On an Airplane
The Squalb
Let's Go
Old Paint
Hickory Dickory Dock
All Around the Kitchen
We're All Connected
Medeski Martin & Wood: 'Radiolarians I'

Radiolarians I  (2008,  64.25)  ***½/T½

First Light
Cloud Wars
Muchas Gracias
Professor Nohair
Reliquary
Free Go Lily
Rolling Son
Sweet Pea Dreams
God Fire
Hidden Moon
Medeski Martin & Wood: 'Radiolarians II'

Radiolarians II  (2009,  51.15)  ***½/TT

Flat Tires
Junkyard
Padrecito
Ijiji

Riffin' Ed
Amber Gris
Chasen vs Suribachi
Dollar Pants
Amish Pinxtos
Baby, Let Me Follow You Down
Medeski Martin & Wood: 'Radiolarians III'

Radiolarians III  (2009,  59.22)  ***½/T

Chantes des Femmes
Satan Your Kingdom Must Come Down
Kota
Undone
Wonton
Walk Back
Jean's Scene
Broken Mirror
Gwyra Mi

Current availability:

Mellotrons used:

Funnily enough, Medeski Martin & Wood are a trio, specialising in weird, Hammond-driven jazz-inflected material, influenced as much by hip-hop and funk as traditional jazz. Starting out as an acoustic act, they soon incorporated electric instrumentation into their sound, although John Medeski seems to prefer electro-mechanical keyboards to electronic ones (hurrah!). Combustication is their seventh album, shifting through styles like they were going out of fashion, with the more melodic (Sugar Craft, the self-explanatory Latin Shuffle) rubbing shoulders with the experimental (Whatever Happened To Gus, Church Of Logic), with turntablist DJ Logic appearing on three tracks. Definite Mellotron on two tracks, with strings on Just Like I Pictured It and Whatever Happened To Gus, particularly raucously on the latter, although I think the flutes on Nocturne are synth.

The Dropper is their ninth album, and the second to feature John Medeski's Mellotron work, which is as off-the-wall as just about everything else the band do. Resonant choirs on Partido Alto sound normal in comparison to the discordant strings on Bone Digger, along with (I think) 'Tron saxes, flutes etc. Tsukemono opens with what has to be the world's first attempt to make Mellotron strings sound like seagulls, followed by some seriously radical pitchbend work on flutes and strings, riding over a weird jazz trio backing. All in all, weird shit indeed. 2002's Uninvisible is probably slightly less weird, though there's not much in it; I'm actually at a bit of a loss to know how to describe most of this music, although they do 'normal out' occasionally. Far less 'Tron this time round, unless I'm not spotting some less common sounds; it finally kicks in with a string part on Where Have You Been? that sounds more like someone doing something explicit and probably highly illegal with a guitar, and some background church organ on Off The Table, but I couldn't spot anything else.

2004's End of the World Party (Just in Case) is, generally speaking, a funkier proposition than its predecessors, with fewer moments of balls-out weirdness and, er, more Clavinet. To my ears, it's a more accessible record all round which could be either good or bad, depending on your point of view. The first few tracks are extremely 'Tron-heavy, with mixed strings, cellos, choirs and flutes on Anonymous Skulls, with a skronky string part and choppy choirs on the title track. The string stabs on Reflector are 'Tron, with more mixed strings on Bloody Oil and a brief string part and an echoed flute melody on New Planet. The strings on Ice feature such a radical pitchbend that I suspect an external device, while the flutes on Midnight Poppies/Crooked Birds aren't dissimilar to the ones on New Planet.

Their first album of 2008, Let's Go Everywhere, marks new ground for the band by being a children's album, complete with vocals on several tracks. The title track sounds like it's from Sesame Street - it may actually be, as its composer is someone other than a band member - and the rest of the sensibly-lengthed album is full of clever, funny songs for kids that never talk down to them, often involving children in the recording. The Squalb is probably the best example, although Pirates Don't Take Baths runs it a close second. Medeski restricts his Mellotron use to a single track this time, with pitchbent strings all over Far East Sweets, although it would have worked well on two or three other songs.

The band's Radiolarians series are named for a type of amoeba that seems to grow in reverse, forming its skeleton outside its soft body. All three albums are played live before recording, in a process new to the band, though far from 'unique', as I've seen it referred to. Radiolarians I is where we remember that MMW are a jazz band, above all, all playing at the top of their game. Medeski's piano work on Professor Nohair (ho ho) is outstanding, ditto his Hammond on God Fire, while Chris Wood excels on (frequently upright) bass and Billy Martin's drumming rivals the genre's greats. Mellotronically, there's a relatively ordinary string part on Muchas Gracias, with more typical 'all over the keyboard' work on Reliquary, and while there are a couple of other 'is it/isn't it?' moments, they seem unlikely.

Radiolarians II is less fiery than its predecessor, although it certainly has its moments. I applaud the band's decision to take a fresh look at their creative process, although I have to say that, for the average listener, the end result is 'merely' another MMW album, its gestation an irrelevance. However, if their new approach keeps the band's creative juices flowing... Several 'Tron tracks, with distant strings on Padrecito, with more 'typically MMW' parts on Ijiji and Chasen Vs Suribachi, full of pitchbends, and is that their first use of 'Tron choirs on Amber Gris? Definitely cellos, anyway, although the solo cello on Dollar Pants is real. Radiolarians III is possibly the jazziest of the series, although the band incorporate a strong dub element into closer Gwyra Mi. Not much Medeski 'Tron this time round, with naught but a few string chords in both Broken Mirror and Gwyra Mi, making this one of their least essential albums on the tape-replay front.

So; several albums of radical jazz, with The Dropper and End of the World Party (Just in Case) being the best on the Mellotron front. Buy if you're feeling adventurous.

bootlegs

The Belly-Up, Solana Beach, California, 10th April 1999  (124.45)  ***/T½

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Mellotron used:

I've no idea how many MMW boots are out there; I've tracked down a couple, on one of which, a set in Europe with John Scofield from 1998, Medeski clearly had no access to a Mellotron. A set from California's Solana Beach the following year kicks off with five tracks of atonal piano jazz, of the kind most of us either love or... don't. Things pick up after that, as Medeski switches to (mostly) organ, although, ripping encore aside, this really is 'Jazz Club' stuff, for aficionados only, frankly. Titles? Sorry, not a clue; assuming they're not all untitled improvs, if anyone out there knows, maybe you could e-mail me?

I don't know whose Mellotron Medeski uses (I find it unlikely he hauled his all the way from the opposite coast, but who knows?), but he doesn't play it that much, anyway, while much of what he does do is based around his radical pitchbending technique, apparently involving manipulation of the flywheel. Now, I've tried this and only managed to abrade some skin from my hand. How does he do it? Anyway, we get a few seconds of flutes at the beginning of track six, then a more obvious, heavily pitchbent part on seven, plus some exceedingly skronky string and choir parts later on, brief string parts on eight, nine and the encore. While MMW fans will probably lap this up, the rest of us may wish to approach with a little more caution. Not really worth it for the Mellotron use, either.

links

Official site

See: Herb Alpert's Tijuana Brass | Auktyon | Chocolate Genius | DJ Logic | Steve Earle | Scotty Hard with John Medeski & Matthew Shipp | Charlie Hunter & Bobby Previte as Groundtruther | The Legendary Marvin Pontiac | Marc Ribot y los Cubanos Postizos | John Scofield | Spectrum Road | Jim Weider


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