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Matthew Kassel

Matthew Kassel

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Medeski, Martin & Wood's Uninvisible Ten Years Later

November 8 2012

The jam band trio Medeski, Martin & Wood plays cryptic, haunting music that wanders around in search of a beat to cling to, a pocket to climb inside. The beat almost always comes in funk form. This is what Medeski, Martin & Wood do best. The keyboardist John Medeski might throw his hands about the keys of his instrument like Cecil Taylor; drummer Billy Martin may make some ambient sounds with the assorted bells and blocks he uses; bassist Chris Wood may pluck a few strained tones high on the neck of his instrument, acoustic or electric. But in the end, Medeski, Martin & Wood return to funk, making the burning question, when will the groove appear? And Uninvisible, which the band recorded ten years ago, strikes many as the funkiest thing they have ever done.

In a recent review of a performance by Medeski, Martin & Wood and assorted guest artists at the Undead Music Festival in New York, the critic Jon Pareles described the jam band ideal: “to mingle everything with everything else, preferably for a dancing crowd.” This is exactly right, and it gets at the core of what this trio is all about.

On Uninvisible, so many guest artists appear that it is hard to keep track of them all. But rarely do you lose track of the beat, to which you are most likely tapping your foot or bobbing your head. The title track and the tune “Nocturnal Transmission” feature what was, at the time, the horn section of the Brooklyn-based band Antibalas Afrobeat Orchestra. (Two of the musicians heard are no longer with the group.) The horn players—Aaron Johnson, Jordan McLean, Michael Herbst, Stuart D. Bogie and Todd Simon—are in good company here, considering Antibalas’s own deep attachment to the groove. They send up echoey lines that Medeski, Martin & Wood lasso down into place.

At other points, too, an African sound comes through, as on the track “Retirement Song,” featuring Eddie Bobé on percussion. This piece also features DJ P-Love on turntables and Danny Blume on guitar, playing a funky, repeated line in an Afrobeat manner. Blume also inserts some spare guitar bits on the album’s funkiest track, “Pappy Check,” on which DJ Olive scratches in some goofy sounds.

Medeski, Martin & Wood excel at goofiness. Sometimes it’s hard to tell whether they want you to take everything they do seriously. “Your Name is Snake Anthony” is a good example: It’s a weird monologue, spoken in a deep voice by the musician Bruce Hampton to the accompaniment of a sturdy beat put down by the trio. Dissonant sounds filter in and out as Hampton continues to speak; it seems free-associative, and it’s also sort of disturbing. “Snake Anthony was not a small, Japanese woman,” Hampton tells us, in case we were wondering.

The sounds made by the singer Brad Roberts of the rock band Crash Test Dummies on “Where Have You Been?” are also somewhat disturbing, even frightening. Roberts can sing incredibly in an incredibly low range, and on this track, he basically just exhales deeply and sonorously, letting his baritone voice resonate. (If you’ve heard “Windowlicker,” by Aphex Twin, you’ll know the kind of sound we’re talking about here.) At the same time, the song, though rough around the edges, sounds like it could have appeared on the soundtrack of a 1970s blaxploitation film.

About halfway through the album’s final track, “Off the Table,” a mellow tune with a hip-hop inflected beat, the sound of a ping pong match emerges. You can hear the ball being bounced across the tables, along with the attendant chatter of the game. At about the same moment we hear an Ohhh, shoot! from one of the players, the drums drop out, but the game continues. Seven-nine, my serve, you hear. The ball continues to be shot back and forth. Then you hear another Ohhh! and the beat is back.

By the time of Uninvisible’s recording, Medeski, Martin & Wood had been putting out records for about ten years. The band had already established its credibility as a solid acoustic jazz trio—notably on Tonic, a live recording—and as a player of sturdy, driving funk in the vein of the Meters, as on Shack-man. (And don’t forget the group's excellent collaborations with guitarist John Scofield.) But Uninvisible seems to be the album that positions Medeski, Martin & Wood as a solid and playful jam band devoted to funk and bits of jazz and many different sorts of musical collaborations. If you haven’t heard the band, it’s a very good one to start with.