If the thought of a "jam band" sends shivers down your spine because it immediately brings to mind the twirling masses that started following Phish after the Grateful Dead stopped touring, then congratulate yourself on being sane. But there's a slightly new breed of instrumental joy starting to flow out of a younger generation of musicians who are getting the jam-band legions gyrating. Fueled by the intersections of funk, hip-hop and jazz, acts such as DJ Logic and Project Logic, DJ Smash and Sex Mob, are winning new fans outside of the clubs where they've honed their craft, in the wide open, college-radio spaces typically ruled by Blues Traveler, Galactic and Trey Anastasio and his crew. Labels peddling these funk, soul (and often white) brothers have caught wind that there's touring gold in them there suburban whirling dervishes. And it's at these audiences that some labels, like jazz mainstay Blue Note, are pushing their latest fare. Bring the noise, bring the funk, bring two turntables but no microphone, and beware of sensitive ponytail guys and girls who wear toe rings.
The New York trio that gets its name from keyboardist John Medeski, drummer Billy Martin and bassist Chris Wood is, whether it wants to be or not, one of the driving forces behind this push. What started in the early 1990s as a playful meeting of talented sidemen quickly grew into a lively improv-leaning unit with a loyal fan base because of its ebullient live shows. MMW surprised a number of its fans and critics with last year's live album of acoustic instrumentals, Tonic--a fairly impressive, straight-ahead outing from a group that prefers to noodle away from tradition rather than address it head on. But it's been its latest studio album, 2000's The Dropper (Blue Note), that's provided the best blueprint for what this genre has to offer, for better and worse.
It's not that MMW aren't obviously gifted musicians hip to what's shaking below pop music's radar--Martin recently unveiled his Groove, Bang and Jive Around vinyl release, volume one in an intended ongoing series by his Amulet Records of breakbeats and percussion samples intended for DJ use. Live these three can raise a ruckus, and as sidemen there's few small combos in mainstream jazz that are as versatile. But every time these three flirt with something that threatens to send them out of this world, they seem to hesitate and bring everything back down to earth into more groovy fare. The Dropper kicks off with a Squarepusher-style smorgasbord of beats for "We Are Rolling," only to dilute this tease with the rest of the album's less thrilling modesty. "Sun Sleigh" takes a Sun Ra approach to keyboard atmospherics and buries it beneath a simple pulse that never goes anywhere. "Illinization" makes a play for DJ Spooky-level illbient, ambient textures--too bad that scene is so 1996.
Admittedly, The Dropper has its moments. "Tsukemono" takes an Autechere cut-and-paste play on group dynamics and features some fine violin work from Charlie Burnham that's pretty cool even though anything by Billy Bang makes it look limp. Alto saxophonist and Sun Ra alumni Marhsall Allen gives the rollicking bass line that powers "Partido Alto" a better bounce. And guitarist Marc Ribot brands "Bone Digger" with his characteristically idiosyncratic guitar sound to sear an indelible mark on the brain.
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If some ears hear the skeleton of fusion running around in the band's rock rhythms running into jazz time changes and chord arrangements, they're absolutely on the right track. MMW have taken the jazz-rock insanity of mid-'70s Miles Davis, Tony Williams' Lifetime, Herbie Hancock, Weather Report, and Wayne Shorter and bottled their lightning as a more accessible, danceable electricity. With tracks that could run in the neighborhood of an hour tempered with the audacity of jazz and rock politics butting heads, those pioneers never really caught on with either jazz or rock audiences, though Davis was one of the only jazz musicians who played the same sort of venues as rock musicians at the time. It just appears that one of the admittedly paranoid Davis' many fears has finally come to fruition: People would be all over his shit if he were younger and white.