Medeski, Martin & Wood’s Tonic: Stripped Down and Electric Funky Free
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Medeski, Martin & Wood’s Tonic: Stripped Down and Electric Funky Free

By Brian L. Knight

When I recently compiled a list of the Top 250 albums of the 20th Century, my Medeski, Martin & Wood (MMW) entry was their space-funk epic, 1994’s Friday Afternoon in the Universe. I soon discovered that my decision was premature. Within a few weeks of the list’s publication, I rediscovered the trio’s debut album, 1991’s Notes From the Underground. When I first picked up the album, I was way deep into the electric aspects of MMW – I was not willing or able to let my preconceptions down to hear the acoustic side of the band. This album featured the band stripped down to the bare minimum – the environment that they developed as musicians in. The album featured a stellar lineup of trumpeter Steven Bernstein, saxophonist Thomas Chapin (RIP), bass clarinetist Doug Yates, trombonist Bill Lowe and trombonist Curtis Hasselbring. To supplement this newfound discovery of the acoustic MMW was their occasional incorporation of acoustic songs in their electric sets and the numerous acoustic appearances of John Medeski with percussionist Bob Moses. Through all of this, the final realization was that this trio was more than three guys who can lay down a danceable vibe, but rather a gathering of virtuoso musicians who started with modern jazz and then moved to the more mainstream jazz funk grooves.

Like some sort of gift from god, Medeski, Martin & Wood recently released Tonic. In addition to being the band’s first live recording, Tonic brings the band back to an acoustic setting that I have recently become to enjoy. You will not find the vibe infected tunes, like "Combustication", "Bubblehouse", "Last Chance to Dance Trance (Perhaps)" or "Dracula", that made Medeski, Martin & Wood dance hall favorites. Instead, this release reveals acoustic inventive originals like "Invocation" and "Rise Up" (both previously unreleased) as well as tributes to their influences with versions of Lee Morgan "Afrique" and John Coltrane’s " Your Lady". The set moves from swinging and raw hard bop to minimalist improvisation to Latin sambas to echoes of their funk. Instead of the keyboard laden and fuzz bass funk of the more familiar MMW, this funk harks to the hard bopping funk of Horace Silver, McCoy Tyner, and Les McCann.

The thing most interesting about Tonic is that it is the first live release from the band. After years of studio acoustic jazz, jam-jazz, free-jazz and hip-hop/jazz experimentation, they finally released a recording that captured the band’s live essence. But rather than reliving the electric grooves that brought the band to national prominence, they reverted to a sound that is traditional to them but not to the hordes of jam rock fans. Tonic signifies a return to normalcy for the band. They spend most of the mid-1990s incessantly touring and developing a devout fan base and now they have time to relax and reflect upon their roots. Tonic signifies that return. The name of the album is best indicator for the band’s return to acoustic jazz. The album is named after Tonic, a true avant-garde underground New York City jazz club. In comparison to their electric shows, a MMW performance at Club Tonic is not like going to Wetland’s Preserve or Irving Plaza for an evening of funk-jazz jamming. On a given night, the intimate confines of Tonic will highlight performances by Steven Bernstein’s Sex Mob, Klezmer clarinetist David Krakauer, avant-garde pianist Cecil Taylor, multi-instrumentalist John Zorn and guitarist James "Blood" Ulmer. A true New York City jazz club where a true New York City jazz band should be playing.

Speaking of places that good jazz should be heard, Jordan Hall in Boston also comes to mind. During the Boston leg of the 2000 Bell Atlantic Jazz Festival (an ambitious festival that brought a plethora of music to four different cities), the acoustic Medeski, Martin & Wood made a two-day stop at Jordan Hall, which is part of the New England Conservatory of Music (the breeding ground for Medeski, Martin and Wood). Once overcoming the shear grandeur and beauty of the 1903 National Historic Landmark, I was able to focus on the fantastic music. It is one thing hearing the acoustic MMW, but it is another thing to hear it live in a building designed for hearing live music. There are too many places out there – Cambridge’s the Middle East and the former Club Toast in Burlington come immediately come to mind – where great music comes to lousy venues. That wasn’t the case for MMW at Jordan Hall. During the first show, the trio played much of the music from Tonic such as "Buster Rides Again", "Afrique", "Seven Deadlies", "Your Lady", "Thaw" and "Rise Up" as well as some yet to be recorded/titled originals. Some of the shows’ highlights were a rendition of the African traditional song "No Ke Ano Ahiahi" and the fine segue between Charles Mingus’ "Nostalgia In Times Square" and Sun Ra’s "Angel Race-I Wait for You". The evening ended with the tune "Olde Wyne" which had Medeski on a "hooter-like" windblown, keyboard instrument, Wood on a stand up bass and Martin playing one of the most bizarre metal percussion instruments ever hailed witness by this author. The three paraded around the stage with their respective instruments and provided a tune reminiscent of New Orleans’ second line parades. After settling down, the three broke into a slow and steadily building version of Hendrix’s "Hey Joe". It was the perfect festive ending to a fantastic evening of music.

Find out more about Tonic and the trio’s touring, go to www.mmw.net