15 May 2008

On Medeski Martin & Wood

Medeski Martin & Wood have been the most difficult to classify group in jazz for the better part of two decades. They have won legions of followers coming from diverse corners of the musical world by embracing an ecumenical approach to music, combining avant-garde harmony, hard-driving rhythm, refreshing spontaneity, and soulful sense of funk. Their music often shows up on my iPod, and I often think about the ongoing debate over "What is Jazz?" while listening to them. The trio occupies an interesting space in this debate. Though they may not be too concerned with the question, their music reveals the limitations of a restrictive definition of jazz, and highlights the difficulties encountered when trying to define a music so diverse as jazz.

Wynton Marsalis made a name for himself in the 1980s as the wunderkind who took the jazz world by storm, both with his virtuosity and his knack for publicity. Through interviews in Down Beat and articles written for publications including the New York Times, Marsalis argued for a definition of jazz which some criticized as rigid and somewhat arbitrary. In a 1988 op-ed piece for the New York Times, "What is Jazz - And Isn't," Marsalis complained, "Too often, what is represented as jazz isn't jazz at all." He argued that earlier practitioners of jazz had "created rules... that were so specific, so thorough and so demanding that a great art resulted." Marsalis elaborated to delineate a "purist ethic in jazz," which is built upon the twin pillars of blues and swing. To put it briefly, jazz music, by definition, swings and reflects a blues aesthetic. For Marsalis, swing and the blues are the sine qua non of jazz.

This by necessity caused Marsalis to dismiss large portions of the avant-garde and jazz fusion as non-jazz, a distraction from the true tradition initiated and propelled forward by the likes of Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker, and Thelonious Monk. Using his post as artistic director at Jazz at Lincoln Center, Marsalis was the chief agent promulgating this strict definition of jazz, promoting the works of artists like Tadd Dameron or Duke Ellington, among many others, who easily fit into this definition. As a result, he and Jazz at Lincoln Center came under criticism from other artists and critics for ignoring artists like Muhal Richard Abrams or John McLaughlin, to name but a few, whose work falls outside Marsalis' traditional definition of jazz.

The music of Medeski Martin & Wood adds an interesting dimension to Marsalis' definition of jazz as an art built upon the twin pillars of blues and swing. Listen to the above recording of Medeski Martin & Wood playing their composition "Big Time;" one can easily hear the qualities deemed essential to jazz by Marsalis. The blues aesthetic is always present in Medeski Martin & Wood's compositions, filtered through layers of funk and dressed up with complex harmonies, giving the blues a more modern hue. This blues feeling is not contrived, either. I saw them play live in Miami Beach in 2006, and the highlight of the show was a cover of Ray Charles’ “What’d I Say,” drenched in blues.

That Medeski Martin & Wood are well-versed in the blues is likely not something Marsalis would dispute. Their sense of swing, though, falls outside the boundaries of what one would expect to hear from a jazz group. Despite this, they still swing. Medeski Martin & Wood do not swing in the way that Count Basie or John Coltrane swing. They impart a more funky kind of swing, with precedents in R&B, hip hop, and rock and roll. Wynton Marsalis would not swing this way, but that does not mean Medeski Martin & Wood do not swing.

By incorporating their own take on swing, Medeski Martin & Wood reveal a multifaceted dimension of jazz which does not necessarily overturn Wynton Marsalis’ “purist ethic,” but instead arrives at that ethic from a different direction. Marsalis’ definition of jazz (blues + swing = jazz) posits a linear relationship between jazz and non jazz, with the two at opposite ends of a straight line. However, this definition does not account for a group like Medeski Martin & Wood (though, admittedly, Marsalis would probably not consider their music to be jazz). I am not of the opinion that any improvised music that claims to be jazz is jazz. There are certain qualities and stylistic elements that should be present. However, I find Marsalis’ insistence on a particular type of swing and blues to be too one-dimensional. Instead of jazz being on a line opposite non-jazz, I conceptualize jazz as an area on a plane surrounded by non-jazz. Thus, artists like Medeski Martin & Wood could occupy a different zone than, say, J.J. Johnson, but both could still be jazz.

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