Jazz is a style of music that does one of two things- It is either tempestuous and revolutionary, changing your life with every listen, or it can crash and burn, from being too slow moving and boring. There is no median in jazz. You either succeed or you do not. End of story. John Medeski, Billy Martin and Chris Wood understand jazz- maybe that is why they are such a successful band. They can groove with each other just by being in the same room. But these three New York residents understand more than just the roots and theory of jazz. They understand groove and funk. Even more so, they know how to meddle in the genre and fashion it into anything they want it to be. Instead of letting the music be their master, the three Berklee attendees meld their music into their own creation, and have the music work for them. With every album that MMW put out, you can almost always expect a fresh, new sound. They change their styles as much as Madonna changes her pop culture image. But MMW arenít fashion and pop chart whores. They are barely even noticed by the masses in America, unless you are talking about some big jazz buffs, maybe. Ranging from hip hop like production, to complete acoustic island jams, every MMW album has its own facade. But in 2002, after the big, juxtaposed Combustication, Medeski, Martin, and Wood sought to produce a whole new record- one that they hadnít thought up before. A record that would change the way you thought about jazz fusion altogether. That album became Uninvisible- probably one of the more chic ways to bring back good olí mid-century jazz, with a laid back modern twist to it. And if you underestimate a bandís ability to groove, then you have hit the royal ***ing jackpot.
Every member of this fusion trio knows a thing or two about groove. Iíll put it out in the open already- They are probably the funkiest band today, in my honest opinion. Despite the absence of more conventional instruments, like guitar or a piano, the three of them know how to make the best of a handicap. Chris Woodís bass playing (the man is a master at both upright double bass, and electric) is mind melting, but not in a fleet fingered, speedy way, but in more of a rhythmically genius, groovy way. He is definitely the foundation of everything going on in the mix, and his bandmates let him handle the melodic portions that would require a guitar player in a normal rock band. His captivating performances range from hypnotic and deep electric grooves [I Wanna Ride You/ Take Me Nowhere (Take Me Nowhere getting my vote for the bandís grooviest interplay jam Iíve heard yet, and Chris gets a few upright solos, which is a huge plus)] and frantic solos that seem to show up out of the blue, to the opening blazing upright runs on Ten Dollar High, and the beefy melodies on Pappy Check. Any less of a bass player wouldíve soiled himself at the thought of being the melodic foundation of a jazz band without a guitarist or horn player present, but Chris Wood shuns the thought of compromise He is but the eye of a sonic storm, with his best friend being none other than a more-than-funky drummer.
Billy Martin is not a fusion drummer that is to be taken light heartedly. The man is a beast on all types of percussion. He doesnít give up any spotlight, and is mixed in just as loud as his bandmates. And when they arenít looking, he simply steals the show. He is a drummer that squeezes just about as much as possible from his hi-hat cymbals as humanly possible, frequently opening and closing them during offbeats, and shuffling in almost every song on the album. He isnít a fill-crazy type of guy, instead crafting variations of his odd beats to the point where every measure is a bit different than the previous one (check out his solos towards the end of Nocturnal Transmission and in ĎSmokeí- Itís based almost entirely on one beat). But Billy doesnít do all of his handy work on a customary drum kit. In fact, Retirement Song is an example of how native African percussion and cowbells can sound just as good as his drumming on a set. A jazz band needs a drummer that can keep an intense groove going as long as possible. But Billy Martin does more than his share to keep the groove alive- He IS the groove. And his band mates wouldnít want it any other way.
John Medeski is not what you would call a Ďtypicalí keyboardist. If it werenít for him, this band would not exist. His playing preferences do not resort to the common and overused grand piano. Instead, John caters to adding an electric, eclectic flavor to an acoustic rhythm using a Hammond B-3 Electric Organ. And if you heard his playing, from the get go, youíll change your mind about electric organs. His melodies are funky, intense, and spicy. They add the special kick to the album, and provide the head bobbing melodies that hook in every listener. It is this manís ideas that act as the adhesive between the crazy interplay that adorns the album.
Even if Medeski, Martin and Wood may sound like just another funky fusion band out there, they donít adhere to all the stupid rules of conventional jazz. They make audacious decisions based on what they like, even if it is a turn off to the big jazz buffs out there. They are willing to experiment with all types of genres, and that is why they are so awesome in the first place. Like on Univisibleís predecessor, Combustication, MMW use DJ Logic to provide some utterly funky scratching on a few tracks, which may seem excessive and out of place, but what the hell, it sounds really cool. Logic also uses samples of fuzzed out guitar, and walls of feedback as ambiance and a nice, angst-ridden background track to The Edge of Night. Something that the band has not done on previous records is include something that may seem to be nonchalant and more typical of traditional jazz music- use a horn section. From the opening shots on the title track, to the last few seconds on the album, youíll hear some clean, booming blasts from the brass horns. Trombones and trumpets finally make an appearance on an MMW album. As I have already said, the use of African and Latin percussion alters the band into a world of samba during their jams, like the bongos and cowbell on Retirement Song, to the conga beat on First Time Long Time. And on ĎYour Name is Snake Anthonyí, a guest poet provides a slick poem of lyrics, giving you that dirty lounge jazz mystique that I have yet to hear on another album in the catalog of MMW.
Youíd be surprised at how hypnotic and spellbinding an hour of jazz fusion can be. The grooves are deep and intense, making the listen to Uninvisible seem much shorter than it really is. Martin and Wood wave the clock in your face with their fully immersed rhythms that have a certain melodic quality to them that you canít find in many other bands today. And while the rhythm boys put you into a trance of euphoria with deep bass and clashing drums, John Medeski weaves in and out of your mind with funky organ playing and soloing, adding the sugar and spice to the album. And the maraschino cherry that tops it all off is the bandís willingness to experiment and the brevity of their horn section blasts. Uninvisible may not be the bandís most daring venture out of funky bebop jazz, but their decision to experiment on the album is not short lived, or disregarded. Because whether or not you want to listen to this album, after you put the headphones on, you will not take them off for another hour. Uninvisible wins the award for the most head bobbing album of the last five years, no doubt about that, but it isnít perfect by any means. But who said imperfections had to be negative. If anything, the band is fueled by mistake, and that only adds to how awesome Uninvisible really is.