Motivated to jam

Medeski Martin and Wood's drummer sheds light on the trio's musical ambitions as the band's latest tour arrives in Syracuse on Sunday.

Chris Wood speaks modestly about the accomplishments of his band, Medeski Martin and Wood. He is a relaxed, friendly interviewee, with a soft laugh and nonchalant way of describing years of touring, albums and musical collaborations. But MMW, which is coming to the Westcott Theater on Sunday night, is hardly a band to be indifferent about.

“The future? I don’t know. We never really did know. All I know is we play music and we will keep playing it.”
- Chris Wood

Keyboardist/organist/pianist John Medeski, drummer/percussionist Billy Martin and bassist Wood are coming through Syracuse while on a promotional tour for their latest release: Radiolarians: The Evolutionary Set. However, the set is not a simple compilation of experimental jazz. Rather, it’s an astonishing example of artistic self-motivation.

The band decided to structure a year around a three-part project. It developed an entire album’s worth of material in three to four days, toured playing only that music and, at the conclusion of the tour, recorded the material.

But to challenge themselves even further, the musicians repeated that process three different times.

“It forced us to write a ton of new music and artistically was a great growth spurt,” said Wood. “It was intense, but something we needed to do creatively.”

The result was three albums titled Radiolarian I, II and III, which were released in September 2008, April 2009 and August 2009, respectively.

Now, the band is promoting the even greater cumulative work, Radiolarians: The Evolutionary Set, which includes the three Radiolarian albums, three bonus tracks, a 10 track disc of remixed music, 70-minute live album, double vinyl LP and DVD feature film directed by Billy Martin entitled Fly In a Bottle.

“Maybe it wasn’t the smartest business decision to saturate the market with so much music,” Wood admitted. “But we developed so many new ideas.”

MMW is known for its ability to tackle new ideas and do so successfully. In 1996, it released Shack-man, an album recorded in a shack in Hawaii using only solar power. In 2006, the band started its own record label, Indirecto, and released Out Louder with guitarist John Scofield. In 2008, MMW released a children’s album entitled Let’s Go Everywhere and to top it off, all the band members' own children can be heard on the record.

“A children’s album had always been in the back of our heads,” said Wood. “It was a lot of fun and we recorded in the Catskill Mountains at a studio with beautiful views. There was no stress.”

But Wood doesn’t seem like a man that gets easily stressed out anyway, despite his band’s daunting resume.

The band has been performing together since 1991 and its released 21 albums and toured extensively across the United States, Europe and South America. As if that weren’t impressive enough, MMW also has its own record label, runs an annual music summer camp, maintains side projects with other musicians and bands and band members have families and children of their own.

To Wood, this busy yet accomplished career has always been natural.

“The first song we ever did together ended up on a record,” he said. “It was pretty instantaneous. We’ve always had chemistry.”

A listen to the bands latest musical output shows it apparently still does.

The trio’s improvisational style allows them to incorporate various styles and influences into their music. Refreshingly, there are no restraints in their musical form. They dig into grooves when they feel them and let them grow organically without concern for a formulaic limit. Rock, funk and jazz all find their place in MMW and its newest album only further proves the band's love of experimenting with sound.

And as for the future of MMW, Wood makes no promises and shows no concern.

“The future?” he asked. “I don’t know. We never really did know. All I know is we play music and we will keep playing it.”

“No expectations,” he emphasized. “That’s the key.”

Go see MMW

Medeski, Martin and Wood perform at Westcott Theater on Sunday, Nov. 15. Doors at 7 p.m. with music at 8 p.m. Tickets are $25.

Photo courtesy of Yan Boechat / CC BY-NC 2.0

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