Medeski Martin & Wood Grow Jazz Hybrids On New Album

Combustication features NYC trio lacing its jazzy groove with rock, soul, blues and Hawaiian influences.

New York-raised musicians Medeski Martin & Wood have found a

unique, albeit unorthodox way to carve their niche in the pop world

-- playing jazz.

In this day and age, jazz doesn't have the overall commercial

strength of rock, rap ... or country music, for that matter. Aware of

that fact, MMW hedge their bets by here and there lacing their jazz

with rock and other musical genres to create a hybrid instrumental

sound that is more accessible to listeners.

And it seems to be working.

Rock fans that admire the virtuosity of jam bands such as Phish and

Blues Traveler have embraced Medeski Martin & Wood, according to

the trio's 34-year-old drummer/percussionist, Billy Martin.

"Since the '80s, things have opened up a bit more," Martin said from

his Brooklyn, N.Y., home. "People say, 'Are you jazz or are you rock?'

I don't know what we are, but we try to keep the spirit of jazz in our

music."

Along with keyboardist John Medeski, 32, and bassist Chris Wood,

27, who live just over the Brooklyn Bridge in New York's East Village,

Martin is preparing for the upcoming release of Combustication

(Aug. 11). It's the fifth full-length album to chronicle the all-

instrumental band's continued ventures into jazz.

While the 1994 release of Shack-man garnered a wider

audience for the band with the album's danceable jazz beats, a few of

the 12 tracks on Combustication go beyond MMW's recipe of

improvised grooves. A cover of the traditional Hawaiian song "No Ke

Ano Ahiahi" takes the trio into new territory, but it uses modern-jazz

keyboard to get the melody across. There's also a spoken-word piece

with MMW laying down jazzy musical accompaniment.

Even New York City turntable wizard DJ Logic is a guest performer,

scratching on a couple of tunes. And MMW continue to add even

more diversity to their repertoire.

"We used improv a great deal and came up with a lot of the tunes

live in the studio," Martin said.

It's not surprising that MMW put so much time into their live

performances.

Their live shows first made them popular with their fanbase and

took the trio, over time, to a whole new level of success.

Although MMW have cut down after five years of near-constant

touring, Martin said the band still does about a nine- or 10-day tour

each month. Anyone who has attended an MMW show knows about

the dancing in the aisles to the groove jams that their audiences

crave. Surely, a jazz band such as

this -- which would normally draw small, elitist crowds -- had a key

to becoming

such a huge, live sensation.

"Our fans like to dance," Martin quipped.

The band cut its teeth in New York City as an organ-based trio after

being introduced by a mutual friend of Martin's. "Things just clicked,

not just

on a musical level, but on an intuitive level," Martin said. Blending

jazz, rock, Cuban, Latin, hip-hop and blues with influences such as

the bandleaders Sun Ra and Duke Ellington, MMW developed their

sound by playing and recording in a "shack" tucked away in a

Hawaiian jungle.

It was, Martin said, an escape from frigid New York winters.

Recently signed to legendary jazz label Blue Note, the band's target

audience could range from jazz purists to fans of political punk-

thrashers Rage Against The Machine.

"John, Chris and Billy have specialized in rhythm music for the great

majority of their lives ... They don't give you all the pain, suffering,

angular, uptight, kind-of weird scene," said David Baker, a New York

City jazz aficionado and former MMW producer (Shack-man).

"You can put your lives in their hands when you go to one of their

concerts. I would hope that, in the future, more supposed

improvisational musicians or bands would pander to the audience, if

that's what it takes. You get a good energy from that, rather than

some weird, nerded-out other thing."

Among the new songs, "Sugarcraft" was born from rehearsals held

before the group began work on the record. Meanwhile, "Coconut

Boogaloo," reminiscent of Ray Charles' R&B rave-ups, demonstrates

the band's New Orleans influence. "We have an affinity toward New

Orleans," Martin said. "And the boogaloo is like the groove we often

get into."

The band also recorded a cover of Sly Stone's "Everyday People," a

song that MMW have been playing live for years, Martin said. Back

in Hawaii, Medeski started playing the melody over a blues shuffle,

and it developed a gospel feel, he explained.

Besides completing work on Combustication, the band is in the

process of setting up a studio in Brooklyn that they call "Shackland,"

a tribute to their recording studio in Hawaii. MMW also recently

collaborated on jazz guitarist John Scofield's CD A Go Go and did

a mini-tour of Japan in June.

But that's not all they're up to these days.

"We're doing group therapy," Martin said, laughing.