After building up a healthy amount of cred among jazz, indie, funk and jam band aficionados, Medeski Martin & Wood have spent the last decade dabbling in various ways to reshape their already well-formed funk/jazz fusion, as well as stretching their own muscles as players and composers. They’ve pulled in vocalists and turntablists, knocked out a goofball children’s album, and recorded an album of John Zorn compositions.
Over the course of the last year, they decided to try something of an experiment. The three musicians met for short writing sessions, banging out a bunch of new songs that they would then take on the road, allowing improvisation and sheer repetition to knock them into shape. After all that, they would hit the studio. The discs – part of what they were calling The Radiolarians Series – were rushed out, and then did it all over again.
This newly released box set puts those three discs together as well as allowing you a peek behind the curtain at how the songs came to be – via a live CD cobbled together from these tours – and where they went (the set comes with a full disc of remixes).
By and large, the music is what we have come to expect from MMW, rambling funky jams that showcase the band’s adeptness at Latin grooves (“Junkyard”), space station pop (“Undone”) and songs that come off like a faulty mp3 player trying to make sense of Bitches Brew (“ijiji”). The conditions in which these songs were created though seem to have had an effect on their feel. A number of tracks, particularly on Radiolarians II don’t feel as fully baked as the rest, wandering down paths that cut them into dead ends that the band then has to backtrack out of. Sometimes this brings about some unexpected delights as on the “Flat Tires” when the steady fuzz of Chris Wood’s bass is shoved aside for a long piano solo by John Medeski and then returns with an even more insistent drive.
Where the real treats come is when you play the comparison game, putting the live versions up against their studio counterparts. Maybe it’s something to do with very vocal audiences egging them on, but the stage versions tend to win out. There’s a loose and fiesty quality to them that somehow gets reined in too far when they are away from the stage. The remix disc, too, plays fast and free with the source material, leavening it with lock grooves (check out how Dan The Automator sexes up “Kota” with a simmering drum loop and a female vocal sample) and, on the best reinterpretation of the bunch, Mutamassik’s lava flow deconstruction of “Reliquary”, a healthy smattering of delay and well-timed turntable scratches.