Over the course of its roughly century-old existence jazz has shown a remarkable ability to adapt itself to the changing contours of contemporary music while maintaining its root identity. As each successive jazz style has emerged critics and fans have engaged in passionate sectarian arguments about the "true" nature of the music like baseball fans debating the relative merits of players from different eras.
Medeski, Martin & Wood is one of the groups at the center of the most recent controversy about the nature of jazz. From the trio's inception in the early 1990s as what was then labeled an "acid-jazz" group, keyboardist John Medeski, bassist Chris Wood and drummer Billy Martin have pursued goals similar to those of the many of the jazz musicians who preceded them -- personal expression, dedication to musical growth and a kind of alchemist's conviction that their own spirits can achieve transcendence through the perfection of the music. Currently the band is in the forefront of a new wave of popular improvisational groups labeled "jam bands."
MM&W has incorporated elements of electronic music and hip-hop into its music, and over the years the melodic content plotted against the rhythmic dynamics of its records has gotten denser and more intricate. It's a fascinating sonic journey which reaches a new level on "Uninvisible," (Blue Note), the band's latest release.
"A lot of that has to do with the amount of time we've been able to put into the records," Medeski explained. "The idea is to make a piece of music with a coherence from beginning to end. In a way we've always been trying to capture what we are about on record.
"In the early days we had a lot more pressure and battles with our record companies in terms of being able to record the way we wanted. We always wanted to put out a live record because what we were doing live, that's what we were doing then and no record companies wanted to put out live records so there was always that slight compromise. Another way of looking at that is it sets limits, and limits are good because they force you to work within them. But it's been nice to have more time."
The group has found Blue Note to be particularly supportive in letting them follow their creative concept.
"They don't say anything," Medeski noted. As a result the band is allowed to mix synthesizers, turntables and electronic elements into the mix with such impunity that it becomes impossible to distinguish at times between the percussive and melodic instruments. On "Uninvisible" the group also uses Eddie Bobe on congas, bata and small percussion instruments, several brass and reed players and a spoken word segment from Col. Bruce Hampton.
"We're always dealing with sounds," said Medeski, "exploring textures and sounds, exploring the infinite possibilities that all our instruments can create sonically. All three of us are rhythmic players. We can use our instruments as percussion instruments and we can use percussion very melodically. It's kind of fun to explore all that stuff.
"We've always tried to explore the balance and try to use rhythms that we really feel and are drawn from our lifetime, more contemporary rhythms. Rhythm is a way of marking time. That's one of the things that defines music, is the rhythm, especially when you go through history, there's different rhythms at different points. We try to use rhythms from now and a lot of them are dance oriented. We try to find ways that are really creative and exploratory using that material."
Medeski's classical piano training also prepared him to deal with abstract sound.
"There's so many different ways to look at it," he said. "So we're just trying to be aware of it all and play whatever feels right to us. That's the thing, to be able to find your own mode of expression with an instrument. That's what I try to do whenever I play a keyboard. That's why I use the ones I do, because those are the ones that feel the best to me. That's just for me, everybody's different."
MM&W will be the first to tell you the group is not sure where this experimentation will lead.
"We just let the music lead us," Medeski concluded. "People talk about jazz, who knows what it is anymore? If you transmute it, jazz was originally a music that was a combination of elements that came together magically to make this incredible music and now it in turn is like an element that people are using in different ways."
For the moment, MM&W's experimentation has led to new elements in the jazz lexicon, as well as a new audience that now has the delicious pleasure of scrolling back over the years to discover all the manifold treasures of jazz history.