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MMW continuing to bend boundaries of jazz and groove

As the last vestiges of inventiveness in jazz, vanish into the midst of overpriced dinner clubs, one wonders if there’s much left to do that is exciting and daring in a music form that even public broadcasting finds suitable enough to air. Just like any other music, jazz has had to look elsewhere for its new forms, to keep the ears fresh and the mind alive with sonic possibilities.

Fortunately, jazz is alive and well with movements such as “nu-jazz” hitting the clubs with danceable beats of all kinds, and the head-nod explorations of “indie jazz” sounds looking to please the nerdy intellectuals. And one can’t forget the acid jazz scene so popular (especially in the U.K.) in the early ’90s. In the midst of all of this, Medeski Martin and Wood stand firm and continue to keep the essence of the music – improvisation, group interplay and musicianship – alive.

As they showed with their performance Monday night at the Crystal Ballroom, MMW is in many ways not even “really” a jazz band. They lay down heavy, funky grooves that also have a rock-type manic energy about them. The lineup is a standard jazz rhythm section, with the steady drumming of Billy Martin, the prolific bass of Chris Wood, and the keyboard wizardry of John Medeski. And then, what about the ubiquitous hippies at the shows?

But before one dismisses MMW as some kind of intelligent jam band, one needs to listen to their spectacular musical chops. Forget that their groove-based organic sound attracts mostly (pseudo-) hippies and musician-types. Their sound truly originates from the New York City downtown jazz scene, from the shadowy depths of places like the Knitting Factory to Tonic, from the Bowery to TriBeCa. Medeski still plays with the casual keystrokes that he always has, which are deceptive in that each hit on his organ or keyboard causes seismic rifts in the atmosphere. One wonders how he still manages to hit all the right chords when he looks like trying to make his hands dance on his Clavinet.

Medeski’s interplay with Chris Wood is nothing short of phenomenal, as they exchange progressions by the chord or note. Wood proves to be an expert at soloing as well, switching between his custom electric and upright basses. He uses the complete range of each instrument, extending the extreme highs and lows, a manic intensity that at times rivaled Medeski’s dramatics.

Keeping it all together was Billy Martin, whose crisp beats prevented the divergent forces of Medeski and Wood from creating an overly chaotic maelstrom. Martin kept the rhythm simple but steady, and provided more than enough to keep the blazing train going. That train also included a horn section conducted by Stephen Bernstein, which gave MMW an old-time jazz feel at times. With two saxophones, a trombone and trumpet, the group gave a more swinging, big band feel to many tunes that originally had a darker, more aggressive approach. The big brass also served to make MMW play somewhat cleaner and tighter, which was necessary with the new arrangements involved. DJ P Love was also on stage with the group, but was almost completely inaudible in the few occasions where he attempted to contribute, and seemed a bit lost throughout the performance.

Their set consisted mostly of works from their new album Uninvisible, which seeks a more programmed beat style with production from Wu-Tang producer Scotty Hard, and also features the dynamic horn section of the Afro-beat Antibalas Orchestra. The new compositions still recall the by now-legendary MMW sound, as dirty organs fuse with thumping bass and driving backbeat, and this was clearly evident when they did play classic selections such as “Bubblehouse” and a cover of Bob Marley’s “Lively Up Yourself.”