Improvisation is key—just don’t call ’em a jam band
In late 2008, jazz-rock trio Medeski Martin & Wood pondered ways to inspire themselves to write new material. They found that inspiration in the animal kingdom.
“There’s a bird, a certain canary, that comes up with a new song every year, which it never repeats in its lifetime,” explains keyboardist John Medeski. “We thought, ‘Yeah, let’s do that, except let’s do it for each season.’ The concept was to write the music, tour behind it, record it and then never play it again.”
The result of the group’s experiment is The Radiolarians Series, three albums released last year and now compiled as part of a new box set. Titled after a spectacularly beautiful single-cell organism, the discs offer up funky pop grooves, Caribbean-flavored jazz and luscious atmospheric pieces. Medeski insists the music, which despite its many facets sounds cohesive, was created without regard to how the final product would fit together. “There’s no logic to anything we do,” he says. “Any logic or analysis comes after the music is finished.”
The unique project is just the latest adventure for a band that has always approached its music in an unconventional fashion. Formed in 1991, the trio, which also includes drummer Billy Martin and bass player Chris Wood, embraced onstage improvisation. Medeski likens the group’s exploratory process to the coordinated play of a finely tuned basketball team. “Each of us knows where the other is going to be as we work our way down the court,” he says. “It’s also like keeping a ball in the air. You have to keep tipping the ball, and watch where it goes and what it’s doing.”
Not surprisingly, the emphasis on improvisation has led some people to characterize the trio as a so-called “jam band”—a label Medeski vehemently rejects. “A lot of these bands claim to be jamming but it’s just bullshit,” he says. “They’re just rock bands playing music that has some solos in it.”
In his view, Medeski Martin & Wood operates in a fresher and more original range of the musical spectrum—one in which innovation trumps easy categorization. “Nobody ever asked John Coltrane or Miles Davis or Sun Ra who their influences were,” he says. “I’m not saying we’re on the same level as those guys, I’m just saying that everyone should be searching for their own voice. The extent to which these [Radiolarians Series] albums rekindled that voice for us was a real surprise.”
Jan/Feb 2010 Issue of M Music & Musicians