Alive and still kicking

Medeski, Martin and Wood have been touring the globe with their captivating sound, and now in Israel, the threesome plan to win hearts here.

Music fans of various leanings are due for a stormy treat this week when Medeski, Martin & Wood (aka MMW) blows into town for a three-day, six-gig slot at Tel Aviv's Zappa club, starting tonight. For the last 17 years MMW has been blowing audiences away across the globe with a captivating mix of jazz with heavy rock seasoning, soul, hip-hop beats and an abundance of swirling electronic sonic enhancement. The trio comprises keyboardist-organist-pianist John Medeski, drummer-percussionist Billy Martin and bassist Chris Wood - hence the abbreviated moniker. As befitting its generally in-your-face musical ethos, MMW is the product of the fast-moving urban energies exuded by the Big Apple. The band formed in 1991 in an area of Brooklyn curiously known as D.U.M.B.O. (Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass). However, while the band may appear to be hell bent on purely blasting their audience away, there is creative substance to the act too. The band members have certainly paid their educational dues with Medeski and Wood, for example, attending Boston's New England Conservatory. Over the past 30 plus years, the NEC has produced a long list of acclaimed jazz artists, including the likes of reedman Marty Erlich (who performed at the Performing Arts Center in Tel Aviv last year) and Grammy Award winning vocalist Rachel Z. Quality education notwithstanding, however, MMW never let acquired skill get too much in the way of the creative process. The trio started out experimenting with contemporary hip-hop beats that could swing as hard as jazz rhythms. The idea was to explore the "here and now" without losing sight the music's roots. Longstanding jazz ensembles of any size have been a rarity for the last 40 or so years. The logistics and financial burden involved in keeping a jazz band together normally prove to be prohibitive. MMW, on the other hand, have an ingredient that is indispensable to any relationship, they actually enjoy each other's company. That, of course, has a positive knock-on effect on the threesome's artistic product too. "We have a natural connection between us, as people and as musicians," observes Wood, "and we just let things flow in whatever direction they went." As the three musicians developed their individual, and shared, craft they began taking on gigs at all manner of venues across New York. Word that a hot act had arrived on the scene soon got around and slots at small clubs quickly burgeoned into performances at leading New York clubs the likes of the Village Gate and the Knitting Factory. The next step was to hit the road, and the band was soon trolling all over the northeast of the US in Martin's van for much of the year. A debut record soon followed, Notes From The Underground, released independently on Hap-Jones Records. By now the band was on the fast track to success. The next CD, It's A Jungle In Here, came out on the larger, although still independent, Gramavision label. Audiences of all kinds were digging the MMW vibe. Rock fans were drawn by the raw energy and the rock riffs the band put out, while jazz lovers could appreciate the strong roots base. The band was also gaining credence among its peers. By 1995, MMW was touring the globe on a regular basis - often taking in the States, Europe and Japan in the same circuit, and industry chiefs were also starting to sit up and take notice. The band's last Gramavision album, a live recording called Shack-Man, came out in 1996 and MMW headed for the venerable base of legendary jazz imprint Blue Note Records. The band quickly released the all-acoustic Tonic album, named after a Lower East Side New York club (and former kosher winery). The band's Blue Note sojourn produced three albums, and the luxury of a berth with a major label allowed it to experiment in all kinds of directions. MMW augmented its already compelling sound with a range of percussion textures, horn sections and even turntables. However, at least as far as MMW is concerned, comfort isn't always everything it's made out to be, and the band eventually decided to break free of the Blue Note gilded cage and established its own independent Indirecto Records label. "By having our own label, we can make music however we want, and make as much as we want," explained Medeski at the time. "In the history of man, recorded music is just a blink of the eye, just a small part of that vast history. The real thing is playing music live, and that is what we do. Beyond that, we'll be putting out recordings as often or as infrequently as we want." Notwithstanding the "live" approach MMW has hardly sat back on its recording laurels either and has released three albums in the last two years, including a disc of children's music - naturally, in a high energy vein - called Let's Go Everywhere, released earlier this year. One thing's for sure - no one will go home unhappy from Zappa this week. MMW will appear at the Zappa club in Ramat Hahayal in north Tel Aviv Wednesday and Thursday at 7:15 and 10:15 p.m. For ticket reservations, call: (03) 767-4646.