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The twisted road of improvisation

Wren Wertin

Medeski, Martin and Wood

Medeski, Martin and Wood became a band before the term jam band even existed. Though their music is fraught with improvisation, they consider the descriptor to be one of many inadequate terms.

“It’s just another title,” said bassist Chris Wood. “I just feel like jam band is deceiving because it describes a scene and audience more than the music. Coming from a musician, I can’t say that’s what we are. But we play with a lot of different musicians, and we like to be a part of a lot of music.”

That said, where would Wood place Medeski, Martin and Wood?

“We don’t describe our music,” he said. “We’re basically just a rhythm section, and we play Medeski, Martin and Wood music.”

Medeski, Martin and Wood music is constantly evolving, shaped by the musical whims of the trio. The early ’90s saw them matching acoustic jazz with danceable beats. Later in the decade they invited hip-hop rhythms and turntables into their mix.

For Wood, keyboardist Medeski and drummer Martin, their latest album, “Uninvisible,” evolved in their New York studio. Sometimes pointed and other-worldly, sometimes rollicking and vivacious, instead of walking in with music they’d written, they wandered in with their instruments.

“Yeah, we just went in a rolled tape and started working with it,” said Wood. “Sometimes we’ll do that, play from scratch and don’t have any music. And sometimes that first take is the best.”

Such a revelation comes as no surprise from a group with the ability to stand in front of a sold-out crowd and take them where they’ve never gone before. A lot depends on the room itself, whether it’s a cavernous place or an intimate one. From there, the crowd’s energy also fuels the music.

“Getting on stage – the frightening thing about it can be that you have no idea what’s going to happen,” he said. “You’re taking a big risk. We don’t go up there and have totally figured-out material like a rock group. It’s fulfilling, it’s frightening, but we have to do it.”

As for Wood, he’s learning another language altogether these days. His six-month-old daughter, Nissa, has become the musician’s main project. Though the average listener wouldn’t notice a difference in his sound, he feels it’s changed everything.

Galactic

Galactic’s fat grooves have been making headlines since their inception – even in as jaded a music town as New Orleans. The six-piece funk-fusion group has been all over the board, incorporating everything from jazz to world music to the blues into their mix. According to bassist Robert Mercurio, they’ve found where they want to be.

“Before, it had to be old-school-sounding funk,” he said. “I think we just found who we are.”

So who are they?

“We used to be pretty style free, but lately we’ve come up with a cohesive Galactic sound,” he said. “And that’s funny, that after all these years we’ve found what our sound is. It’s a little bit of everything – heavier, less a Meters-esque, New Orleans punk band. We’ve been listening to more Radiohead and DJ records, more hip-hop stuff. We’re more modern than our earlier records.”

Just because they’ve found their niche doesn’t mean they don’t play a variety of music. Concerts might include a brass-band tune, a soul tune, a funk tune – the stuff that made them famous. Like Medeski, Martin and Wood, Galactic musicians like to go where the music takes them. Their tight jams can spiral out and out, anchored by Mercurio’s bass and Stanton Moore’s drums.

“Sure, we improvise,” said Mercurio. “Maybe it leads you down a road that’s kind of interesting. It’s one show, one night. And it’s exciting to go where we haven’t gone before.”

Mercurio didn’t intend to become a full-time musician. He received a degree in psychology, but always had a project going on the side.

“It picked me,” he said about the music business. “I was spinning in college in a band, and the band just started becoming more and more popular, taking up more time.”

The group now spends a great deal of time touring the country in a bus – so the psychology degree can come in handy.

When Galactic arrived on the scene in the late ’90s, they were a purely instrumental group. In addition to Mercurio and Moore, the musicians include Jeff Raines (guitar), Rich Vogel (Hammond B3) and Ben Ellman (sax). Every once in a while, vocalist Theryl “Houseman” de Clouet would drop in as a special guest.

“Now, we’ve added him as a permanent special guest,” said Mercurio. “We used to put the vocal set in the middle, but now it’s more toward the end. It’s kind of a relief, some people can’t listen to just instrumental all the time.”

The musicians in Galactic and Medeski, Martin and Wood are good friends off the stage, as well as occasional concert-mates.

“They go a lot more out than we do, that’s their thing,” said Mercurio. “But I think we’re both at the same end of the spectrum.”

Wren Wertin can be reached via e-mail at wrenw@vaildaily.com or phone at 949-0555, ext. 618.


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