Medeski Martin & Wood: More Than Magic

Medeski Martin and Wood have an absolutely uncanny sense of themselves off-stage and on, which is all the more remarkable given the fact they are equally articulate instrumentally as they are verbally. And that’s not to mention how patient they are either, both individually and collectively: just as the trio display the good sense to take their time and let their music develop in the moment, so do they often and wisely allow themselves some time away from a given project before they go back to it.

So it was with In Case the World Changes Its Mind, a double live set by Medeski Scofield Martin& Wood, recorded on tour in 2006, but just released last autumn, and so it is with Free Magic, an album comprised of live recordings from the last extended MMW acoustic tour back in 2007. Far from being merely a sequel to their previously-released acoustic album, Tonic, this latest title incorporates new songs and new sounds into an oeuvre that has been fascinating to follow since it began and continues to grow, as the trio is constantly building upon what’s developed before.

Doug Collette’s dialogue with Chris Wood followed that pattern, initially covering some familiar topics before, seemingly out of nowhere, the two conversationalists found them in unusual territory…which nevertheless illuminated the subjects they had covered earlier. It was almost like a good improvisation, as themes were established, embroidered upon, then restated to imbue their overall interaction with a logic all its own.

Before we talk about the new MMW acoustic album Free Magic, it occurred to me to ask does it feel like you’re busier now dividing your time between Medeski Martin & Wood and The Wood Brothers, than when MMW first got going?

There was a time with MMW when we were on the road pretty constantly, so yeah, it feels just as busy now, though it’s different. It’s a little more schizophrenic.  In some ways, it’s fun because there’s a lot of variety in what I’m doing now. It’s busy–there’s no doubt about that.

Does it feel like culture shock going in either direction, when you shift to The Wood Brothers from MMW, then back again? Do you really have to adjust your mindset according to the kind of music that you are playing?

Not really. It’s just music. There are certain things I’ve got to prepare for a little differently. In some ways, the one thing makes the other seem fresh, so going back and forth kind of works.

Having seen you with The Wood Brothers recently, it occurred to me how different it must be to be on stage with those two guys than the other two guys and what a great change of pace it must present for you.

It’s also the way we write music together. MMW is definitely much more of an improvisational thing and what’s nice about it is that we don’t have to rehearse: we’ve been doing it for so long it just comes easy and naturally. What’s fun with The Wood Brothers is that it’s about the songwriting, working on arrangements and I enjoy that too, so it’s kind of a good outlet for that.

I’ve had a chance to hear the new album Free Magic and it’s quite a fascinating piece of work. It’s quite different than the acoustic album you did back in 2000, Tonic: did you go back and listen to that as you were prepping this new acoustic project?

We didn’t listen to it (laughs).  This latest album is a compilation of a few tunes that were recorded during a tour five years ago, so we wanted to do an acoustic tour and we knew we wanted to add some new sounds that we’d developed since we did the Tonic record. And we had some new songs that we wanted to do, so we recorded it, thinking that some day we might want to do an album. It took quite a while, but eventually we got it together.

You guys don’t seem to be too concerned about going back and forth in time. I was just listening to the live album with John Scofield (In Case the World Changes Its Mind): that was recorded back in 2006 and it just came out last fall, so you must keep a pretty good measure of pride in whatever you’re doing, at any given time, as you look back.

Part of it could be that but part of it is that, after doing that Scofield tour, we played a lot of gigs and played that music quite a bit. We honestly had no perspective on it. It took a while before we could listen to it again and have any kind of objective perspective on it to choose tracks. In a way, the same is true of this acoustic album: sometimes it’s good to let some time pass before you can really hear what happened. It’s sort of an objective, outside point of view.

That makes perfect sense. You must get very involved in the mindset of the music as you’re touring and playing and that doesn’t lend itself to pure objectivity.

Yeah and even still, I remember what I thought was a good night and what I thought was a bad night, and then upon listening I realized, some really great things happened on that supposed off-night that we actually used. It’s hard to know.

I’ve heard musicians talk about how surprised they are listening back to different nights, positive and negative, and being surprised at how their recollection matches up or doesn’t match up to what was actually captured.

You really don’t know if what you are doing is good until later, so you just have to do the best you can, have fun and pay attention, then go for it.

Let’s talk about Free Magic specifically for a minute and the whole tour and album project; I know you’ve done isolated acoustic gigs over the years, but what prompted you to devote a whole project to it, record-wise and road-wise?

Every once in a while we like to get back to our roots, at least the piano. John (Medeski) always considers that his main instrument, but over the years, there’s been other things that kind of lend itself to that setup that are more than just the acoustic piano.

He has this thing called a Solovox (a pioneering electronic keyboard instrument, dating from the 1940s and manufactured by the Hammond Corporation), which is like the very first electric keyboard invented, a tiny little thing which is connected to the acoustic piano. We first became aware of it through Sun Ra, who was always on the cutting edge, he was probably one of the first people to have one.

And then John re-tuned this small upright piano on which every note you press down is actually a chord—of course every note has two or three strings on the piano—and he was able to make each one a kind of chord, sounds something sort of like a gamelan (a traditional musical ensemble from Indonesia, typically from the islands of Java and Bali, featuring a variety of instruments). So that was a really interesting thing to add to it.

He had another thing called a shruti box (a small wooden instrument that traditionally works on a system of bellows). It is similar to a harmonium, a kind of droning thing, then there’s the melodica, you know a lot of different sounds like that to add to the pure acoustic setup,so this tour was an opportunity to explore all that kind of stuff and some new tunes.

Not that I was disappointed in any way, but that was a real pleasant surprise because I expected to hear piano, bass and drums throughout the whole thing.  So when I heard these odd sounds, I couldn’t tell if it was percussion or John plucking the piano strings.

How did you go about picking the tunes from the 2007 tour? Did you listen to all the shows together? Did one of you do it? Did you have David Kent (MMW sound engineer) listen to them all then make recommendations?

No, we listened to them. I had most of them sitting on my hard drive. We were on a European tour with a lot of traveling and I just sat there and listened to all of it, made notes, passed the notes on to the guys and they made notes on some of the things I liked, listened to other things and found things they liked. Little by little we made some choices. It’s something of an arduous process, so that’s one reason why some things get procrastinated.

It must seem daunting to face the prospect of listening to an entire tour’s worth of music, be objective about it, be discerning about it and, as you said, take notes and prepare a presentation of it to your bandmates.

 It takes a lot of band time – a lot of time when we have nothing else to do.

Can you tell me a little bit about how different it is, if at all, to play acoustic rather than electric music? Or electric instruments? Is there a different approach at a fundamental level?

Any kind of music that we play is ultimately like a chamber piece, whether it’s loud electric or soft acoustic, so it’s all about blend. So the change in approach all has to do with the blending: with acoustic instruments, you generally don’t have a volume knob, so we have to play to that. Billy has to approach the drums differently—he doesn’t hit them as hard, which he never does anyway: tone is very important to him. He’s not a hard drummer even when we play electric.

When it comes to acoustic piano, we have live mikes in there, and we have other sounds bleeding into those mikes, so the blend becomes all more important.

As I was listening to the new album, it struck me what a light touch he (Martin) has on his kit and when he’s playing various percussion things, he’s never ever anywhere near being heavy-handed.

He’s never a basher!  Even when he thinks he is because he has to. It’s really part of his style and the way he was brought up playing drums: everything has to bounce naturally and it’s all about the tone: if you hit too hard you don’t get a good tone!

Is there something different apart from the blend itself, that’s different about improvising with acoustic instruments in terms of staying within a certain volume level? Does it make it more difficult, is it easier or is there really no difference whatsoever?

It’s the same idea of working with tones that you have.  Depending on what you’ve got to work with, it’s going to change the outcome. Ultimately, it’s about listening and reacting, so that part’s the same.

Do you choose a setlist each night before you go on-stage or do you pick the tunes from a selection…or do you go off the cuff as the set progresses during the course of the evening?   

We’ve done it every imaginable way. Depending on the night, depending on the sound, if the soundcheck went well and we felt  we could do anything, if the soundcheck seemed very difficult and we felt we needed to fall back on a setlist, we’ll do that. When we’re feeling good and we’ve had the right kind of dinner, sometimes we don’t say a word about the music–just walk on stage and play.  Those times are really special too.

I’ll bet! That takes a lot of courage, to take upon a show without a word to each other, but I suppose if you’re all in a zone where you’re feeling good, then bravery doesn’t seem like such a great leap.

I think you just know. It’s just a feeling you have. And a lot of it has to do with our personal dynamics and the way we feel. And we definitely talk about meals before the show because that affects a show, it really does. Because good food and wine can be inspiring (laughs). But it’s also about having a connection: all bands have different kinds of rituals of what they do before a show to get connected with each other psychically and for us that’s a great way to do that.  Sometimes John and I will cook a meal for the band and for the crew: it gives that kind of connection that works on stage as well.

Absolutely. Cooking with other people is collaboration and you’re trying to get something to come out right that meets everybody’s tastes and palettes.

It’s really fun and you’ve got to work together. It gives you a certain kind of focus, but it’s also like a social interaction thing. It’s very good for music I think.

That would seem to be a great warm-up then, to go onstage when you’ve prepared some food with somebody.   On the acoustic sets you are going to do this fall, are you going to do two sets or one single set for the evening?

I think we’re going to do two sets. That’s my understanding. That’s how we did it last time. Usually when we perform without any kind of opener, that’s what we do.

When I’ve seen you over the years, you’ve done a couple of sets. I’d be interested to know, at the end of the first set, when you’re taking a break, do you ever have a conversation where you’ve got to go off in another direction because what you did in the first set just isn’t working? Or conversely, “We’re really on a roll tonight!…Let’s take a really short break!!” Or do you do without a break at all if you’re really on a roll?

We usually take a break. It’s good to take a break, When we’re having a really difficult time with the sound, sometimes that break is really what you need: it (the sound) really threw you for a loop somehow: something about the sound, something about the set or something about the night–you can really let it sink in and redeem yourself on the second set. The break can be nice—something about it is good.

But that being said, there’s also something about playing one set, making it a show from beginning to end is good too. And it’s weird: it’s almost like the two-set concept is a real American thing. When you tour Europe, they never do that!?


You do one set. You play the show and that’s it. It’s more of an obsession in this country, not with every kind of music, but some of the scenes that we’ve been a part of, there’s an obsession with quantity. And some bands, the way they’re talked about, they’re amazing because they play for four and five hours. We never do that. Why?…I could never see that much music and most every musician I talk to feels the same way: How could you sit through that much music and really get it? Really pay attention to it all? I can only imagine it’s because people want a band in the background that they can party to for a long long time.

I think that’s a part of it. Because so many people at a show, at a club or even at an outdoor or especially at an outdoor venue, they’re talking and they’re partying and the music is in the background: it’s only something they pay attention to when it’s a song they really love comes on then it’s back to conversing and talking on the phone etc.

We come up against that a lot with the electric shows. What are we now,? Are we some kind of party band or are we doing something people are going to pay attention to? It’s a little vague sometimes. And that’s part of the reason we enjoy doing these acoustic runs. Because it’s really set up to be a concert where people sit and listen. And we get to do something. That’s something we enjoy and feel like we deserve every once in a while: a captive audience!

I would think in whatever case it is, who ever it is, to play three hours or four hours plus would be a tremendous drain and a challenge to stamina. And especially with improvisational music:  it must present a great challenge to be in good physical and mental shape to tour and play these shows. Do you find that that’s the case? Do you prep in that regard when you are about to go on the road?

Oh yeah! That’s the hardest thing to practice is stamina. We can go in there and practice all kinds of other things for tour, but the thing that’s most easy to forget is that you’re playing constantly for a long period of time. Sometimes that first show, you feel that: ”WOW!” (laughs) But you know if you’ve been doing it for a long time, you usually get broken in fairly quickly and already by the second show, you kind of feel ready. And you learn about the pacing of a concert, how to kind of not blow it all on the first song! (laughs).

And I suppose, to circle back to the first topic we covered, to stay busy playing music, you never get out of shape playing music, whether it’s live or in the studio: you’re always on the threshold of being in good condition or right in that zone again.

It’s funny: when you’re really busy touring a lot, you’re spending most of your time traveling not playing, even though you’re playing regularly which is nice. Sometimes when it’s at the end of a long tour, especially in Europe, when you’re playing shorter sets and you’re on a plane every day, in some ways I kind of feel out of shape by the end.
Whereas if I’ve been home, really intentionally practicing and preparing for tour, in other ways I feel in much better shape at the beginning of a tour. It’s weird–you need both: you need solitude for time to prepare and you need to play shows to be in touch with what that’s like.

It must feel great to finish up a tour, just as it must be to finish an individual show, and really feel inspired and charged up by it, rather than drained and worn out.

It is–it’s a good feeling and it doesn’t always happen and if it doesn’t happen, it’s usually because you didn’t get sleep enough: you’re flight’s too early. (laughs)

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