By Dan Lehner
Medeski, Martin and Wood have made a long-standing career out of making endlessly fascinating music with guitarists, and their set last week at the Blue Note was no exception. Let it be said that neither MMW nor Nels Cline allow their celebrity status to stand in the way of inspiring, quirky, and even somewhat confrontational art. Both exist part-time in non-jazz scenes—MMW as charter member of the jam-band scene, Cline as the lead guitarist for Wilco—but here, not only were they unafraid of fleshing out their free improvisation chops, that’s how they chose to kick off the night.
The first few minutes, which featured robotic bleeps and bristling scratches from the raw ends of their instruments, set the tone for an otherwise hard-grooving set replete with sonic adventurousness and naked aggression. For much of the set, MMW and Cline followed a formula of creating a musical idea, augmenting it with ferocious noise, and then making a groove out of that ferocity. This worked well, since all four musicians groove unbelievably hard.
Wood’s surprisingly loud bass breakdowns were crucial in leading the band in and out of each musical design, both with his sense of pocket and timing. A middle section carried itself with a late-night crate-digging feel, turned slightly on its head by Wood’s no-time-signature ostinato and Billy Martin’s restless percussion coloring. Medeski explored the space between free and funky on his synth, playing what could have been a string score to an old movie, if the vinyl had been beaten up and warped.
Cline was a lively and enigmatic houseguest in the MMW party. He shared the same strong sentiment for overenthusiastic rock wailings, clanging blasts, and kitschy melodrama as MMW. Not one to be pigeonholed as just a weird noise scientist, Cline got down with MMW’s funkier moments, stomping along with the group’s channeling of The Meters and Jimmy Smith, with Martin’s off-center funk polyrhythms giving it an extra kick. In the end, MMW and Cline complemented each other as beautiful gatekeepers of weirdness, filtered through dancing joy.