Medeski Martin & Wood

June 7, 2011

Medeski, Martin, Wood

A discussion about the group’s 20 years and their work at Camp MMW…

When John Medeski, Billy Martin and Chris Wood first got together in the early ‘90s, they had no idea that their trio would gain such commercial success. Fast forward twenty years and Medeski Martin & Wood, have now released over twenty albums, toured the world, and collaborated with everyone from classical cellist, Jane Scarpantoni, to jazz great, John Scofield and turntablist, DJ Logic. To celebrate their twentieth anniversary, MMW are releasing twenty new tracks and embarking on what could be the group’s last tour for a few years. To get a better handle on the band and their music, JAZZed sat down with the trio to talk about the past twenty years, their plans for the future, advice for budding musicians, and the unique opportunities available to young jazzers at Camp MMW.

JAZZed: How did Medeski Martin & Wood get its start?

John Medeski: Twenty years ago we all met and started playing in New York. Chris and I had met in Boston and when we moved to NY we ended up playing at this club called the Village Gate. I met Billy through a good friend and mentor – Bob Moses – and when I first moved to the city, Billy and I got together to play a duet at his house. Then all three of us got together at Billy’s place. That first time was pretty magical and we’ve been doing it ever since.

Billy Martin: What was apparent was the instant chemistry that we had together. It was really about the sound that we were coming up with right on the spot. I think all three of us were really ready for something like that. We were all playing as sidemen with other bands and were really looking for something different, something where we could have our own band with no leader. And it sort of evolved into this collective, this trio Medeski Martin & Wood. I was very gung-ho about it and wanted to get us on the road and make a CD and was kind of pushing the guys to do that so we got in my van and we started heading outside of NY. A lot of our gigs were down south in college towns and coffee houses. We avoided jazz clubs because we wanted to reach a wider audience, especially the younger people. We weren’t making any money the first couple of years, but it wasn’t really about making any money – it was about building something.

Chris Wood: We basically decided to start touring like a rock band. At the time we were making our money as sidemen for other people so it was really a strange sort of thing to do – jump in a van together and start touring clubs in the U.S. – but that’s what we did. Even though we weren’t really playing jazz in the traditional sense we started out as a jazz trio just because it was acoustic piano, acoustic bass and drums. As we toured the US, we were just touring in a van and I think that influenced our sound a lot – we couldn’t travel with a piano. Pianos in your average rock club in the U.S., if the venue even has one, are pretty dismal. So we had to find a different way for John to express himself and ultimately that was the B3 and the Clavinet and the Wurlitzer and those instruments that kind of allowed him to do what he wanted to do and obviously that changed the music.

JAZZed: How are you guys planning on celebrating your 20th anniversary?

BM: Throughout the year we’re going to be doing some special offers – we’ll have a digital release of twenty singles, we’re going to be doing four Fridays at the Whitney museum in NY city, where we’ll have some different guests come play with us, I’m sure there’s going to be some things that are going to come up…

CW: We want to think of it partly as a retrospective and then partly as a celebration. We’re doing a whole thing where we’re letting people request what they want to hear ahead of time and then we’re going to play one set of requests of the old material and then we’re going to do a whole improvised shack party set which for us is basically a party. Its a dance thing, but its made up and its stuff that we do on the spot. It’s creative and we’re making up each one for that night, but its definitely groove oriented.

JM: I think we’re kind of honored that we’ve been together this long and we’re still growing and enjoying it. There’s a lot of stuff we’ve recorded before that’s never been released, and a lot of new stuff too – a lot of new live stuff. We’re planning on releasing a live Scofield record from our last tour we did a couple of years ago that people have been asking for. We recorded a bunch of shows and we’ve all been away from it long enough that we can go back and revisited it and find some stuff that we like and are willing to release so we’re going to do that and we’re going to do a couple of tours as well…

BM: Our tour schedule is a little lighter – we’re not touring as much we have in the past. We do have three major tours and then in the summer we’re going to play a lot of jazz festivals in Europe and Brazil and then there’s Camp MMW obviously so we’ll be getting into that in early August.

JAZZed: Can you tell us a little about Camp MMW?

CW: We’ve been doing this annual music camp up in the Catskills of New York for four years now. It happens in the first week of August and it can hold about 75 people at the most. It’s a really beautiful and intimate setting where we can turn people on to what we think is important about music. There’s a lot of real conceptual stuff, and some real basic stuff as well. We play them examples of how we compose, how we come up with music all our influences…

JM: It’s a chance for us to give back and offer some of what we’ve learned and our experience. For each of us it’s a little different but for me what I find important – having gone to music school – is all those things you forget. Some people go off and study music and they never have anything to say of their own cause they get so caught up in studying and imitating. My goal is to try to keep the students connected to who you are and what you have to say and where your music really comes from. There’s no reason you need to lose your voice, you need to find your voice and then add to it – increase the size of your pallet.

BM: It’s been a great way to connect and immerse everybody into our world – all of our influences, how we make music, how we practice, our philosophies, and our methods. We have workshops and concerts where we’ll play for the students, and we’ll conclude the week by having a concert where each ensemble plays. We have a listening room – if we just we played our library straight, you couldn’t listen to everything in a week! So you can go in there and check out our library. We have films just about every night that are music related – it might be about Gil Evans, Monk or it might be a classic film like Black Orpheus – a Brazilian film from the 50’s that’s very musical – so there’s a lot going on. We keep them very, very busy and there’s not a dull moment.

JAZZed: What’s next for MMW?

JM: I think we are going to ease up a little in terms of our touring. We’re not retiring or anything, but I think we are going to do less as a band and more as individuals. There’s a lot of stuff that we’ve wanted to do and we’re going to pursue that more. We’ll still play together, but I don’t think we’ll tour as much.

CW: Yeah, we’ve been touring a lot over the last twenty years so we’re maybe slowing down on that side of things. I’ve been real busy with the Wood Brothers. Me and my brother have been doing this thing for about five years – we have a new record coming out called Smoke Ring Halo and we’ve been touring quiet a bit supporting that.

JM: I’m playing in a Tony Williams band with Jack Bruce, Vernon Reid and Cindy Blackman called Spectrum Road. It’s inspired by his Williams’ Lifetime and what he did as the foremost pioneer of jazz rock. He was really the first one to do it – it’s been amazing to revisit the music and realize how much ahead of his time he was. I’m doing a lot of solo piano projects as well, which are really fun and I’m going to start putting together some other things that I’ve been wanting to do. I’ve been talking to some people maybe doing a drums, DJ and organ trio, I want to do a big band record – I have a lot of music that I’ve written – there’s so much stuff I haven’t even gotten out yet.

BM: We’ll always be together. We’re not the kind of band that’s just going to quit. We’re going to be slowing down on the MMW bit. I just formed this new band called Wicked Knee. There’s a little clip of us playing on my Life on Drums instructional DVD. I wanted to have some brass on the DVD and from that I realized that this is my new band! I just finished mixing it last night so that’s going be my thing – it’s been something I’ve wanted to do for a long time.

Then there’s my new DVD Life on Drums. I call it an anti-instructional video and it’s kind of my response to a lot of the instructional videos that are focused more on the technical aspects and less on the creative and compositional style. I do think it’s important to find a technical explanation for things, but Life on Drums for me is my anti instructional, educational and somewhat documentary DVD about the art of drumming. It’s more about the creative side of it – all the aspects that I like to focus on and what I teach my students. It’s structured around topics like soloing, tonality, composition, rhythmic phrasing, tuning, and performance. I feel like a lot of this technical stuff will come through just by sitting there and watching someone play a solo. I used to go see Elvin Jones and Roy Haynes play live, and to me that was an incredible education just to see them play. It wasn’t like I needed to sit down and study with them – although I would love to have – but I feel like you get a lot of information just by watching them play in their element, soloing and being creative. That’s really something I wanted to capture and I think I was successful.

JAZZed: What advice do you have for young musicians?

CW: Just persist. If you really want to do it and you love it – if you love music you just have to keep playing and playing and playing until you really are doing what you believe in. Try to be yourself while you’re doing it and if you don’t quit and you keep showing up, eventually, inevitably people are going to take notice of what you’re doing.

BM: For drummers I would say, don’t think about being a drummer all the time. Think about being the musician as composer. The drums can be an incredibly powerful thing – you can get people up dancing or you can take people on a journey but you don’t always have to think like a drummer to do that. Next time you sit down at the set, don’t think, “What would a drummer do?” Try to think more like a composer – that goes for all musicians really. Work on your soloing and on your improvising and think about developing your language. Think about your instrument as a means to express yourself with the language and the vocabulary that you have. Work on being in the moment of soloing and improvising and composing on the spot. Even if its just a one minute solo, work on developing a piece of music on your instrument right there on the spot and your vocabulary will grow very quickly – think about Sonny Rollins on the Williamsburg bridge or John Coltrane locked up in his room for weeks at a time developing his sound. That’s important.

JM: Slow down the process in terms of your study. We’re constantly on random play and things are changing all the time, but I think it’s really important to stop and slow down. Set aside time to really dive into things and absorb them. Work on slowing down and really hearing from deep inside. Take time to dive into one artist for a month or two at a time. Pick somebody you really love and just dive into their music. Find pieces that will give you the quintessential sort of essence of their sound and study it, learn it, absorb it. Take time to listen to it until you can hear it, sing it and feel it inside you – until you don’t need to listen to it or read it to sit down and play it.

I also recommend playing free as part of your practice. First do your technique warm-up and then sit down and play free. You can sit down and play a sunset, you can play an emotion, you can play a scenario – it can be programmatic, it can be romantic, it can be whatever but do it everyday as part of your practice. Then you can go work on learning tunes, writing, studying harmony, lines, approach tones, – all that other stuff that you need to learn – but first get yourself in a warmed up state and connected to your instrument and then play free. That’s how you find your voice and stay connected to it. That way you know what all these sounds mean to you. You can’t be taking your cues from everybody else – we need to know what every chord and every note means to us and what every combination of those notes means to us. Then when we play them is coming from us.

Leave a Comment