Words By: Eric Podolsky
Images by: Sterling Munksgard
Medeski, Scofield, Martin & Wood :: 6.17.14 :: SFJAZZ:: San Francisco, CA :: Early Show
When it was announced that jazz/funk/fusion/wizard guitarist John Scofield would be joining his old A Go Go backing band Medeski, Martin & Wood for a run of Northwest shows, many immediately jumped at the rare chance to hear these legends groove together, as it happens far less than it should. More exciting was the opportunity to hear these guys perform in the brand-spanking-new SFJAZZ Center, which was built with impeccable acoustics tailored specifically for jazz. This ideal setting for music-making lent an intimate air to the proceedings, which featured a quiet and attentive sit-down audience that pushed the band to explore any musical realms they fancied. The debut of new material was icing on the cake for a show that covered the spectrum of sound, from pulsing funk to swinging jazz and avant-garde freak-outs, all delivered with that unmistakable, effortless flow.
Armed with a stripped-down jazz setup of just a B3 and a Steinway, John Medeski started the show out of the gate with a funky romping piano groove. Lacking his usual electronic keyboard spread, it was clear that Medeski was here to get down to business and just play, minus the usual sonic experiments that one expects from an MMW show. Medeski and Scofield traded playful licks over the top of a bubbling start-stop groove, with the rhythm section of Chris Wood and Billy Martin swinging loose and nimble, but just tight enough to effortlessly push the compositions forward.
The group soon moved into a haunting, fragmented, chime-tinged space, with Wood bowing theremin-like harmonics out of his upright bass. This opened up into a straight-ahead jazz take on a tune from A Go Go, which saw Scofield’s slinky, soulful guitar lead the way in a nimble, swinging jam that showcased all four musician’s experimental chops without loosing the groove at any point. This is part of the magic of these guys’ nearly psychic power: they keep things incredibly loose and flexible, while maintaining a telepathic tightness, following each other into unknown realms at the drop of a dime.
This chemistry was fully on display for a complicated new debut. The heavy tune began with electric fuzz bass chords, which led into a breathtakingly fluid and polyrhythmic drum solo from Billy Martin, and climaxed with Scofield and Medeski exchanging flurries of notes. The outside-the-box torrent felt like the natural peak of the 75- minute set, as the new tune was met with a massive response from the grateful audience.
Another debut followed, featuring a lyrical, melodic melody and a haunting, effects-laced Scofield breakdown before Medeski brought the music back up with some freaky organ flourishes. Next was a gorgeous, blissful ballad take on Dylan’s “The Times They Are a-Changin’” that saw Scofield squeeze the hushed melody out of his guitar, using the natural acoustics of SFAZZ to his advantage.
Closing the set was a rousing, celebratory take on A Go Go’s “Hottentot,” which provided a funky extended excuse for all four members to let loose, pushing, pulling and responding to each other with freewheeling solos. The knowing glances and looks between band members (and Chris Wood’s dance moves) were testament that these guys were pushing, challenging and digging each other’s playing at every turn. This music was contained chaos of the highest order, and it’s what MSMW do best. The structure and groove are always there, but the looseness and manic energy threatens to send the music flying off the tracks at any moment, while sweeping you away in a wave of fluid, telepathic sound. And that’s part of the fun—freakouts and side tracks are what make this unpredictable band so great.
An encore of the soulful, sing-songy “Tootie Ma is A Big Fine Thing” ended the Early Show with a happy piano groove, and sent us into the night happy and satiated, imbued with the natural flow that runs through this band. Here’s hoping that the band members’ busy schedules allow them to play together more often in the coming year, as there’s noting quite like the exciting unpredictability that comes with a MSMW show.