09 March 2009

Under The Radar: Tonic

Medeski Martin & Wood

I've written about Medeski Martin & Wood's inimitable electronic acid jazz (I prefer to call it avant funk) before, but my favorite recording of theirs is actually Tonic, a live recording released in 2000. It is the only album which features the trio in an all-acoustic setting. While this makes it an outlier of the trio's catalogue, it is also a perfect example of their postmodernist approach to jazz. The trio weaves together four originals with four covers seamlessly into a solid hour of exciting jazz. The trio rework their covers into their shared language: groove-heavy, blues-drenched jazz with avant-garde color. Each tune stands on its own while fitting into the groove of the setlist. The album comes very close to replicating the excitement and spontaneity of a Medeski Martin & Wood set.

The trio begin with Invocation, a group improvisation which evokes the fire of Cecil Taylor. Medeski Martin & Wood often open their shows with a freewheeling opener. Most of the time, each member of the trio begins playing the second he gets to his gear, without waiting for the rest of the trio. This allows them to hit the ground running and feed off of the energy in the room. Invocation floats into one of my favorite tunes, Lee Morgan's Afrique. This is a particularly brave selection, being that it was first recorded by Art Blakey. It is one thing to cover a straight-ahead Blakey tune (think Moanin' or Along Came Betty), but to cover a tune that utilizes so much polyrhythm takes more than a little bit of guts. Drummer Billy Martin utilizes the cowbell wonderfully during the tune, and goes into a nice swing on the bridge. I think Art would have dug it.

Along with Afrique, a highlight of the set is the trio's performance of John Coltrane's Your Lady. The trio reimagine's the tune within a tight groove. Medeski and Wood play off of each other masterfully, adding depth and complexity to the groove without drowning it. As with most other Medeski Martin and Wood albums, Tonic serves as a series of case studies on grooves; from the dissonant energy of Seven Deadlies to the dark funk of Rise Up. Whereas lesser bands run the danger of simply employing groove for its own sake, Medeski Martin & Wood use the groove as a backdrop for deeper melodic exploration, a la John Coltrane's classic quartet.

The set closes with a version of the garage-rock classic, Hey Joe, that may strike some as anticlimactic (especially since it follows the frenetic Thaw). But I find it to be a nice bookend to the set, giving listeners a relaxing cool-down after the trio's workout. Tonic may not be the best introduction to Medeski Martin & Wood, but it is certainly a treasure among their catalogue which grows more rewarding with each listen.

Track Listing: Invocation; Afrique; Seven Deadlies; Your Lady; Rise Up; Buster Rides Again; Thaw; Hey Joe
Personell: John Medeski, piano; Chris Wood, bass; Billy Martin, drums, percussion

1 comment:

(tani) said...

Solid review! Tonic is one of my favorite MMW albums, and Tonic (sorely, sorely missed) was my favorite venue ever. Make sure you Check out Electric Tonic as well!