Medeski Scofield Martin & Wood – Juice (ALBUM REVIEW)

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mmwalbumIn an expression of their collective confidence, the opener of Medeski Scofield Martin & Wood’s Juice sets the tone for an album conceived of the foursome’s exploration of Latin-influenced music. The quartet slip so easily into the lightly syncopated groove of  Eddie Harris’ “Sham Time,” it’s as if they gave no forethought to what they were about to play, but simply let the guitarist count off so the other three joined in to revel in a few short minutes of the natural chemistry  MSMW have honed now for upwards of seventeen years ( since their first recorded collaboration, A Go Go, in 1998).

In keeping with the unpredictable nature of their relationship, however, only “Louis the Shoplifter” and  ”Stovetop” exhibit the familiar strains of the eclectic genre. As with most of their projects together and apart, MSMW approach the concept from an angle: the former might be a tribute to Jobim, except that John Medeski plays the piano notes the famous composer would exclude, while Billy Martin sounds like he’s playing the familiar rhythm of a samba backwards.

And the surety that this ensemble nails the latter arrangement confirms the skill that allows them to play around with this style of music: they’ve already mastered the straight playing of it. How the music ends up being so infectious a listen lies in the camaraderie of Medeski Scofield Martin & Wood. The mutual pleasure that arises as they play keeps the mood bright and playful on a track like “North London,” a dynamic all the more remarkable considering this unit is that most rare of combinations: musicians of equally high level of technical expertise combined with commensurate intelligence as improvisers. MSMW eschew competition for collaboration and on Juice, their  lighthearted approach permeates the sound as clearly as the instruments resonate.

Chris Bittner recorded Juice at Applehead Studios (where MMW recorded live with Nels Cline), while the trio’s long-time technical collaborator Scotty Hard mixed the album to  preserve the presence of the guitar, bass, percussion and alternating organ and piano fills. Thus, the sound will fill any room as fully as the band inhabits the covers they include amongst their original material here. Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A’Changin” receives a single run-though of its melody, revealing itself only near its climax, as a solemn conclusion to the record that serves to accent its otherwise upbeat atmosphere. This take on Cream’s “Sunshine of Your Love” is more deceptive as Medeski Scofield Martin & Wood would not stoop so low as an obvious riff, preferring instead to  play reggae-dub style within the melody lines and rhythm beats to merely suggest the structure of the famous rocker. In contrast to that eleven-minutes plus exercise, “Light My Fire” is more obviously and economically to the point, reminding what a haunting melody The Doors wrote. Perhaps this is the most traditional moment on Juice, MSMW do justice to the time honored jazz approach of covering standards, rediscovering and  reinventing them in the process.

Like the lovely balladry that is “I Know You,” “Juicy Lucy” is also credited as an original of Scofield’s and it’s source is all too obvious (or perhaps not) in the garage rock staple “Louie Louie.” Evidence of MSMW’s refusal to take themselves too seriously, the agile musicianship they display as they contour their playing to each other on this cut is an example of the individual and collective humility at work here. Only such a dynamic would allows a player with such a fully-formed personality like John Scofield to become wholly integrated within the well-established bond of MMW and, as a result, create an  equally distinctive group dynamic.

At least on first listening, the simplicity of the approach at the heart of Juice camouflages its intricate balance. But, all truly great albums, successive listenings reveal the wealth of nuance within and, in turn, compel repeated playings that will be equally satisfying sitting still between headphones or in a free dance around the house.

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4 Responses

  1. For no reason other than accuracy, I would like to pint out that the song that reminds Mr. Collette of Louie Louie is Juicy Lucy. It is not, as he states in his review, Scofield’s ballad I Know You.

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