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Medeski Martin & Wood, the new darlings of New York’s downtown alt-jazz scene, are profound only to those unfamiliar with the ’60s “soul jazz” pioneered by organists Jimmy Smith and Jack McDuff. They are indeed adroit musicianssavvy stylists with guidepoints as disparate as John Cage and James Brownwho manage to fit a wealth of jazz, R&B, and classical impulses into the seemingly confining soul-jazz framework. But they ultimately succumb to the ennui of that genre.
Their sixth album, Combustication, marks their jump from the indie label Gramavision to Blue Note, one of the major clearinghouses of soul jazz in its heyday. The major-label support gave the trio more time, space, and recording technology at New York’s Magic Shop studio than they had had at the Shack, the Hawaiian shotgun house where they recorded 1996’s Shack-Man. The creative dividends are obvious; MMW hold back on the manic velocity of their earlier works and find the freedom to explore new sonic textures.
Or maybe they’re under the spell of special guest DJ Logic, who miraculously diverts MMW from the worn path of the jazz-groove revival on three tracks. It’s miraculous because, with the addition of Logic’s turntable wizardry to a postmodern organ trio, the music could easy have slipped into irrelevant acid-jazz blahs. But just when the trio’s grooves start to turn too hypnotic, DJ Logic jars them with turbulent textures, crafting a multitude of sounds and nuances from conventional scratching to onomatopoeiayells, wails, cries, and laughs.
On the enigmatic “Start•Stop,” Logic initially underpins Medeski’s swirling organ figure with pygmy rhythms; then, as Chris Wood’s foreboding bass line dissolves, he supplies a haunting drone punctuated by a distorted, scratched riff. Logic’s ambient soundscapes lurk behind Medeski’s pointilistic organ melody on “Church of Logic,” before he explodes into a prism of warped scratches, flaring sirens, and piquant whistles. Soul jazz has never sounded so devilish. Only on the opening track, “Sugar Craft,” does Logic’s brainy turntablism run the risk of gimmickry, as he alternates among rapid-fire scratches, screeching cat cries, chicken cackles, and teapot whistles.
Medeski is a keyboard maverick who conjures an equally expansive range of temperaments on Hammond B-3 and Wurlitzer organs, piano, clavinet, solo vox, and Mellotron. He coolly lays back on “Just Like I Pictured It,” stating the organ melody leisurely and with the shimmering grace of Jimmy Smith, and later, he renders a vigorous piano solo on “Latin Shuffle,” a track that would be disposable but for his joyous swing and improvisational abandon.
Medeski’s organ adventures immediately bring to mind Larry Young, but his conservatory prowess and finesse at drastically altering the mood with the slightest chord progression hint at P-Funk keyboard genius Bernie Worrell. The hallucinogenic “Nocturne” alternates between subtle clavinet flourishes that sound more like mutated harpsichord and a weary melody spun through the solo vox. Medeski’s finest moment, however, occurs on an inventive rereading of Sly and the Family Stone’s “Everyday People”; he transforms it into a slow, sensual gospel waltz, embellishing its nursery-rhyme melody with the passion of a Pentecostal ministersoulful shouts and mournful wailspractically taking ownership of the pop anthem.
Drummer Billy Martin and bassist Chris Wood create a potent team alongside Medeski’s wild escapades to create a distinctly communal sound, with Wood’s fluid, economical figures wrapping Martin’s flinty rhythmic arsenal. But, like most soul-jazz albums of yesteryear, MMW’s records have begun to act out the law of diminishing returns: After 1993’s Notes From the Underground, which featured a larger ensemble, and its uneven follow-up It’s a Jungle in Here, the group’s last three releases have been succinct in scope and more or less interchangeable. Songs like “Just Like I Pictured It,” “Coconut Boogaloo,” and “Hey-Hee-Hi-Ho” from Combustication could have easily been on any of three previous records, while their hipster version of the traditional Hawaii tune “No Ke Ano Ahiahi” sounds like a leftover from Shack-Man, and, after a few listens, Combustication starts to burn itself out.CP
Medeski Martin & Wood perform with DJ Logic tonight at 8 p.m. at George Washington University’s Lisner Auditorium.