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The Boston Phoenix Groove, Holmes!

MM&W's eclectic thing

By Richard C. Walls

AUGUST 24, 1998:  I've been listening to Medeski Martin & Wood since their Accurate debut in 1992, but after I read the press material that accompanies their latest release, Combustication (Blue Note), my mind has become a jumble of names and genres. James Brown, Duke Ellington, Sun Ra, Jimmy Smith, Albert Ayler, jazz, jazz-funk, funk-jazz, hip-hop, funk-hop, hip-pop . . . all (and much more) have been evoked, and in some cases invented, to make the point that MM&W are a swirling mass of varied influences and cross-genre alchemy. It's a point that's repeated sans elaboration, like a self-evident accolade -- apparently eclecticism is now a universal virtue, though nobody seems to know, or care, why. Billboard, for example, praises MM&W for "mingling pop and avant-garde influences with funky aplomb." It doesn't matter that you can switch the genre names around in that sentence without changing its meaning -- the important thing is that they're "mingling."

Another thing I've gleaned from my preparatory reading is that if you're going to be a major player in the art of mingling, then an important part of your potpourri must be something that can be denoted as a "groove," whether that's used as a vague but evocative noun or as part of the dubious genre name "groove music." I have to admit that "groove" has a nice hip/populist ring to it, and the promo sheet that came with Combustication is quite shameless in its usage, sprinkling the word throughout the text like a talisman, until an apotheosis is reached in a quote from the group's bassist, Chris Wood: "In America, people like to dance. That inspired us to play grooves." And he has a point -- when it comes to music, we're all idiots here.

The ambiguous punch line is that Combustication isn't all that groovy, or groovish, at least in the sense that Wood seems to have had in mind. Only a couple of the cuts -- "Hey-Hee-Hi-Ho" and (parts of) "Hypnotized" -- are really funky enough to stir our native impulse to get up and shake our booties, and these mainly because of the drum figure, a solitary laborer amid the group's ambient concerns. For the most part, the album is rather moody, favoring songs that seesaw from one spongy chord to another, many tricked up by pleasantly odd sounds, some supplied by guest DJ Logic, others a natural result of the group's expertise at not sounding like a keyboard-bass-and-drum trio. And the only time they do sound like one, undeniably, there's a conceptual hook for flavoring, as they take Sly's playful "Everyday People" and slow it down to a lugubrious gospel plea.

MM&W's stalwart eclecticism creates a context of no context, a musical place that substitutes reference for expressive meaning and interesting choices from a seemingly unlimited palette of textural possibilities for expressive freedom. Ummagumma-era Pink Floyd meets Eno, I thought a few times when they wandered from a song's theme in a free-associative, airy but coherent manner -- which may be a glib response, but when the promo sheet describes Medeski's piano solo on "Latino Shuffle" as McCoy-Tyner-meets-Cecil-Taylor, it's exactly right. Tyner's aggressively spicy block chords are there, as are Taylor's hyper and squiggly filigrees, but the solo doesn't grow out of the song or enlarge it or even delineate it. All that's communicated, once you've spotted the homages, is that you and Medeski have heard some of the same records (what it communicates if you don't spot them I have no idea).

Don't get me wrong, I enjoy listening to this CD. It's just thinking about it that gives me a hard time. Cued by the descriptions I'd read, I listened in vain for traces of Ellington, Ra, Brown; I heard nary a whiff, let alone anything resembling the work of Albert "groove king" Ayler. MM&W's starting point on Combustication, it would seem, are those organ trios (and sometimes quartets) that flourished in the '60s, a type of music most fondly remembered by people who weren't around back then and don't realize that by the mid '60s organ groups had become to commercial jazz radio what fusion was to become by the late '70s -- a bane. Anyway, on guitarist John Scofield's recent A Go Go (Verve), MM&W closely resemble an organ rhythm section of yore, maybe a little more clever than most, yet genuine and safe from questions of larger meaning.

But on a project like Combustication, which was conceived explicitly to be a studio creation where, Medeski has said, material is gathered and worked like a lump of clay, it's easy to expect that something importantly experimental will be going on and easy to be disappointed when you conclude that they're just dicking around with some sounds and having a good time -- that despite some blatant references to past innovators, despite their bringing in a DJ, despite the avant-garde but always kinda pretty garnishing, this is basically a party, and that's about it. Okay, now everybody mingle.

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