25 Years Later: Revisiting Medeski Martin & Wood’s Definitive ‘Shackman’ LP

Shackman (released 10/15/96) may well be Medeski Martin & Wood’s definitive album, if only because it epitomizes that rhythm-dominated style of theirs with which most people are most familiar. Certainly, the instrumental sound remains equally accessible and recognizable, so it’s little wonder the trio found favor with the burgeoning jam band audience at the time the LP was released twenty-five years ago. But it’s from the foundation established by this series of syncopations that the group extrapolated a long-term career path for itself.

Still, for all the alternately intoxicating and mesmerizing qualities in tracks such as “Jelly Belly,” the means by which MMW made Shackman is almost as notable as the album itself: engineer David Baker recorded the music in a shack in Hawaii powered by solar energy. The threesome’s sound guru not only captured the layered acoustic/electric textures with realistic a punch, but also then mixed them accordingly, with Katsu Naito, to retain the sonic impact. The end result marked a drastic departure from the more abstract likes of the threesome’s two previous albums, Notes from the Underground and It’s a Jungle in Here, from ’92 and ’93 respectively.

When and if this iconoclastic band gets around to expanded reissues of their albums, it’ll be fascinating to find out how these near fifty-five minutes came to be preserved for posterity. Were the tracks complete unto themselves as structured composition or do the eleven cuts represent excerpts from longer improvs edited into sonic shape? And how many began as impromptu jams, which appears likely with “Night Marchers,” as opposed to finite compositions like the traditional “Is There Anybody Here That Love My Jesus?” No doubt the sum total is some combination because, if Medeski, Martin & Wood are skilled at anything (on a record as in live performance), it’s the ebb and flow of pacing by which the contrasts are set off in great relief from each other, both in terms of individual pieces and the collection thereof. 

Nothing goes on too long within the duration of Shackman. The most extended interval of seven minutes and six seconds is not an extended duration for a group capable of playing uninterrupted hour-plus sets. And as evidenced by the imperceptibly growing force in the aforementioned opening spiritual,  Medeski Martin and Wood are nothing if not patient here: on this homage to the keyboardist’s admiration of music from the church (see also ‘sacred steel’), his quick shifts around the battery of instruments at his command may belie the pace somewhat, but as he switches from Hammond organ to clavinet then electric piano, it’s as if he encouraging his bandmates to fill in the spaces he creates, then leaves behind. 

Wood and Martin are all too willing and capable of doing so. Adopting a modified second-line New Orleans gait on “” Think” is an ideal set-up to the moody reverie that follows in the form of “Dracula;” in the midst of such action, the bassist is every bit as insistent with his upright instrument as his electrics in play on “Bubblehouse.” And for his part, the drummer adjusts the complexity of his own playing to match his partner in the rhythm section: via the overall gestation of Shackman, “Spy Kiss” seems ripe as a candidate for condensation from more protracted playing.

The NOLA influence comes into play once more during the understated interactions on “Lifeblood,” too. Martin’s nuanced percussion complements Wood’s stand-up bass in such a way it slides into the body of the tune via Medeski’s Hammond (his instrument of choice here rather than the piano of the prior pair of records) is all that much more emphatic. It’s difficult, if not impossible, to find many bands in any genre with collective instincts more closely aligned than MMW’s–the Miles Davis quintet with Hancock, Carter, Shorter and Williams comes to mind–so it’s hardly surprising that, at the very outset of of “Strance of the Spirit Red Gator,” each of the three men knows right where to go and how to move in order to contour his musicianship to the others’.

In catching the beat and holding it throughout Shackman, Medeski, Martin & Wood dug even more deeply into the grooves than on their preceding effort, Friday Afternoon in the Universe. But creatively restless as this threesome is, after one more such record, the Blue Note Records debut Combustication, MMW returned to deeper expeditions into the abstract, while still utilizing a steady pulse as a point of reliable reference. The Dropper and Uninvisible were released before departing the hallowed bastion of jazz in 2004 via End of the World Party (Just in Case).  Having thus established their group persona, it only made sense this idiosyncratic unit would embark upon its own independent label initiative, Indirecto Records, and do so in the familiar company of John Scofield on Out Louder: it was shortly into the quarter-century since Shackman came that Medeski, Martin & Wood supported the venerable guitarist on his own foray into danceable realms on  Au Go Go. But this iconoclastic three were their own men by that time, and in no uncertain terms, they have remained so ever since.

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