Medeski Martin & Wood Strip Down, Swing Hard

Usually electric trio go acoustic for five nights in New York in advance of Tonic live album.

NEW YORK — The electric-jazz-hip-hop hybrid Medeski Martin & Wood returned to their acoustic roots explosively with a five-night run at the Angel Orensanz Center that concluded Sunday.

With telepathic precision, John Medeski on acoustic piano, Chris Wood on upright and semi-electric bass and percussionist Billy Martin laid out two hour-plus sets of sparkling work each night.

The shows at the Lower East Side's Orensanz Center harked back to the trio's nine-night run at Tonic in March 1999, when the live acoustic album Tonic, due next week from Blue Note Records, was recorded. The Orensanz Center, two blocks from the Tonic on Norfolk St., is situated in a building originally built as a synagogue by German-Jewish immigrants in the 1850s. Sculptor Angel Orensanz bought the building in 1986, and now it is run by a foundation of downtown artists.

Stripping paint and multiple balconies spiral upward toward an illuminated gothic ceiling in the cavernous theater.

"It's dope the way they left everything intact, unfinished and rough around the edges," said artist Todd Arsenault of Baltimore, in town for Friday's performance.

Thursday night's first set opened with a layered free improvisation that featured Medeski digging into a toy piano propped atop the strings of his grand piano as Martin, armed with a percussive arsenal of drums, tongs, mbiras and even a squeaky drum stool, wove accompanying textures. The trio then powered through fiery acoustic arrangements of jazz standards, including Duke Ellington's "Blue Pepper."

A respectfully mellow but engaged crowd of 500 watched as the yellow-tinged glow of the historic venue provided the perfect backdrop for MMW's acoustic explorations.

The second set Thursday saw the trio push through material captured on Tonic with unequivocal precision and color. Among extended and exploratory covers of Ellington's "Afrique" and John Coltrane's "Your Lady" was the pulsating bass riff of "Seven Deadlies." Medeski's Cajun-filled "Swamp Road" featured the keyboardist's soulful and spirited work on a melodica.

Friday's opening set found the three in a somewhat darker exploratory mode as they played "Afrique," "Where's Sly" and a yet-to-be-titled composition the group first performed at a January 1999 at New York's Bowery Ballroom. Here, Martin's deep hip-hop variation rhythm complemented Wood's darkly melodic electric bassline.

In set two Friday night, MMW got soulful, settling into the high-energy, solo-packed "Rise Up" and Joe Zawinul's "Mercy Mercy Mercy." The set closed with a beautifully crafted, cerebral rendering of "Hey Joe."

Midway through Thursday's set, a string of yellow lights along the altar behind the trio flickered inexplicably, offering tangible proof of what most people already know: MMW's eclectic explorations rustle up the spirits at every stop.