21 April 2009

Review: Radiolarians II

Medeski Martin & Wood
Radiolarians II

Medeski Martin & Wood have released the second album of their Radiolarians series, in which they develop and flesh out new tunes on the road before taking them into the studio. Whereas Radiolarians I resulted in an assemblage of various styles in one album, Radiolarians 2 seems more stylistically unified. Medeski Martin & Wood are in jamband mode on this album - which some may interpret as a bad thing. But I don't. One of the trio's strengths is the way it bridges highbrow and lowbrow. In the same song, you can hear Medeski play the kind of sophisticated, angular lines which make jazz buffs drool over a simple but effective funk groove laid down by Wood and Martin.

Such is the case on Radiolarians 2. The album opens with a heavy bass riff reminiscent of Les Claypool before giving way to the frenetic opening melody of "Flat Tires," which then leads into a simple vamp over which Medeski lays some pianistics with hints of Cecil Taylor and Ellington. Within the first three minutes of the album, the trio assembles its usual pastiche of American musical forms into its own inimitable sound. It is a brilliant opening, and one whose promise is fulfilled throughout the remainder.

More indicative of the laid-back feel of the album is the sixth track, Amber Girls, which is reminiscent to me of a Phish jam, slowly meandering its way through its variations. The tune also features some satisfying dissonance between Medeski's piano and Wood's electric bass. The tune also reflects the only major shortcoming of the album, though. By the time the group has arrived at the end of the tune, they simply let it end without giving it a conclusion worthy of the tune's exposition. This is forgivable, though, as the first four minutes of the tune more than made up for its abrupt ending ("It's not the destination, but the journey," as the saying goes).

Though you rarely read about it in the jazz press, who mostly focus on the trio's own version of inter-genre fusion, Medeski Martin & Wood are more than capable practitioners of the kind of free jazz you would expect to hear on an Ornette Coleman album. This facet of the group is on full display on "Dollar Pants," which is built upon a single two-beat vamp. Medeski and Wood each take turns playing around the vamp, each giving subdued takes on the theme free from harmonic restraints.

I've made no secret of my admiration for Medeski Martin & Wood, and I would add Radiolarians 2 to the top of my list of evidence of their particular brand of genius. They may not be playing jazz as defined by some, but their music is nonetheless a captivating outgrowth of The Jazz Tradition, one which continues to bear breathtaking fruit.

Bonus Content: Medeski Martin & Wood play Junkyard earlier this year at Le Poisson Rouge (mislabeled as Cajun Boogie):

Track Listing: Flat Tires; Junkyard; Padirecto; ijiji; Riffin' Ed; Amber Girls; Chasen vs. Suribachi; Dollar Pants; Amish Pinxtos; Baby, Let Me Follow You Down
Personnel: John Medeski, keyboards; Chris Wood, bass; Billy Martin, drums, percussion


DCW said...

Would you say Tonic is their best album?

David said...

Tonic is definitely one of my two favorite MMW albums (The Dropper being the other), but I don't think it is as indicative of their style as any of their other albums. Since it is entirely acoustic, it's kind of an outlier. I would probably select The Dropper as their best, but Tonic and Combustication are also in the running...

DCW said...

Yeah, I agree. Although it really isn't their typical style,Tonic is their best for me. I think the acoustic format allowed them to make some excellent and creative moves on Tonic. I read you earlier review of it. Their jammy stuff is OK, but I like it when they delve deeper into jazz. Nice blog man!