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Medeski Martin and Wood
By Bob Bahr
Among people who know the recorded output of Medeski Martin and Wood, the discussion is often about whether what they play is jazz. To be sure, the instrumentation is traditional: Hammond B-3 organ, bass and drums. But MMW pillages freely from rock, reggae, blues, gospel, Brazilian and African rhythms and especially funk to make a groovalistic gumbo of a new sound, one that would suggest Booker T. & the MGs as soon as it would bring to mind Sonny Smith. Past outings have called to mind Louisville's own Java Men in their melding of jazz tradition to other musical elements. Shack-man is a much dirtier, groove-dominated record -- a direction that was suggested by their work on the "Get Shorty" soundtrack last year. It is music a Deadhead could love, music that will get dismissive snorts from jazz traditionalists, music that explores rarely traversed ground and yet can bewitch that elusive, lucrative audience: casual jazz fans.
"Is There Anybody Here That Love My Jesus" is a traditional spiritual, but MMW renders it dark and insinuating. "Think" follows with a New Orleans rhythm and uplifting vision. At first listen, "Bubblehouse" will make you pause with its tempo tampering, gradually speeding up and slowing down -- very mysterious and a bit unnerving. "Spy Kiss" is trance-like, with a repeated bass figure and a willingness to focus on creating a gut-level emotion. At the very least, you'll rock back and forth like a Ritalin child. "Jelly Belly" is the most explosive cut, in large part because of Billy Martin's drumming -- ripple-y enough for a loose groove, bursting with energy at key moments, augmented by a percussion overdub. "Night Marchers" has such great wah-guitar scratches, it makes me sad to think of seeing the band live: would Chris Wood abandon his bass line to pick up the guitar, or would the band omit the guitar part? Either option would be grievous.
Throughout, Bitches Brew-era Miles is evoked, psychedelia is not far behind. The trio's past three albums acutely showcased the musicians' skills, but Shack-man is a simpler work that is played with assurance rather than flash -- you'll appreciate the players' parts, rather than marvel at their solos.