Yes, No and Maybe: Celebrating 20 years of Medeski, Martin & Wood’s musical adventures
Here’s a special expanded version of the oral history that appears in the September issue of Relix.
The list of bands to make it 20 that still have all its original members is extremely short, but we can now add Medeski Martin and Wood to it. Launched in Brooklyn practice spaces and East Village clubs, the trio of 20-somethings started out as an acoustic piano trio, but was not to last. They blended classic jazz, African percussion and downtown avant-garde experimentation and soon plugged in to add rump-shaking funk and modern beats and sounds.
What follows is the oral history of the band, from the early days in Boston before they got together to their emergence on the East Village scenes of the Knitting Factory and CBGB’s Gallery. They jumped in a van (and then an RV) literally living on the road as they grew their fan base and wintered in Hawaii, recording one of their greatest albums (if not their most trying) there. They survived a bidding war with 17 labels to sign with the legendary Blue Note label. These days they are independent once again and as creative as ever. What follows is a history of the trio as told by the band and people who were there.
Keyboardist John Medeski first met bassist Chris Wood in Boston where the two were attending the New England Conservatory of Music. The duo later connected with New York City-based drummer Billy Martin via legendary jazz drummer Bob Moses.
John Medeski: I met Chris on a gig in Boston. His approach to rhythm and power was something I really related to. We did some gigs with Bob Moses, who was encouraging to all of us. Chris, Bob and I went on a tour of Israel together, which was amazing. Then we both moved to New York at the same time and Chris played with me at The Village Gate a little bit. We worked up a bunch of material doing acoustic duos, mostly our own arrangements of jazz standards.
Billy Martin: I met John at this Bob Moses gig where I was playing some percussion and electronic drums. I’d heard about John from Moses and he came to the gig. He had this big beard and wore overalls. He was living out in the Berkshires and he looked like a lumberjack. I remember thinking, “This is John Medeski?”
Chris Wood: We had been doing these duo and trio gigs at the Village Gate with more traditional jazz drummers. We knew about Billy, and John had met him and seen him play. John was interested in the fact that he was not a jazz drummer, but had the ability to improvise and was a great musician. The first song we sat down played together was “Uncle Chubb,” which was on the first record.
Medeski: The first time we got together and played in 1991, the first thing we did was tune which we later transcribed and recorded [as] “Uncle Chubb.” We added horns and stuff. But that’s verbatim of what we played. We were instantly making music together when we played. The chemistry was right there and we’ve been working on it ever since.
After recording their first album Notes From the Underground as an acoustic trio with some horns, the band went electric.
Martin: The first time John and I played together was in my loft in Dumbo playing duets with him plugging a Korg into an amp I had. So I knew he had this other thing besides playing acoustic piano. We went everywhere we possibly could that day—we were even using our voices at one point—and he was right there with me the whole time. It felt special.
Medeski: The music evolved from there. The organ added a whole new pile of references and a whole new dimension. It gave me another world of colors and power. One of the reasons why we got together and why Billy Martin was so perfect was that we were really honest about who we were. As much as I studied and played jazz and thought that that was what I was going to do, I’m not an old jazz guy. I came to terms with what I was listening to and the world I grew up in and tried to find a way to really be sincere. Billy was coming out of funk, hip-hop and Brazilian music; it was all dance and groove related, but he was also creative and into improvising. He could play, hold a groove, sustain and build under a soloist for a while. He had a way of doing that and it felt great when we played together.
Before settling on the rather direct band name Medeski, Martin & Wood, the trio toyed with other names courtesy of downtown New York iconoclast musician/artist John Lurie of Lounge Lizards fame who Medeski and Martin had gigged with.
Medeski: When we did our first tour, we sent around a press kit that had a different name for the band—Coltrane’s Wig, which was given to us by John Lurie. We were looking for a name and we loved [Lurie’s] sense of humor and everything about him. At the time, he was the quintessential downtown artist. His paintings are incredible and his titles are amazing. He has a way with words. So he gave us three names and we picked Coltrane’s Wig. It didn’t really work, though in Knoxville Tenn. they called us that for many years. The reaction we got from owners of jazz clubs in other parts of the country was really funny. I wish I had a recording of when I would call and follow up. [Laughs.] I guess it was a little irreverent, but we love Coltrane and we love wigs. We felt that it just didn’t apply and at that time there were so many bands with cool names that were just terrible.
John Lurie: (musician/artist): That is a terrible name. Thank god they didn’t use it. I keep seeing it pop up lately. Isn’t funny how some dopey thing you said off the top of your head, like calling the Lounge Lizards “fake jazz” sticks around forever. But no—Coltrane’s Wig—that would have been awful.
Wood: We never meant for that name to get out. It was a joke, but then we pull up to our first gig we ever played in Knoxville and there was the poster all over town. It created a stir because it was so un-PC but hilarious. People either laughed at it or were horrified. The promoter who brought us there loved it, but he was a pretty eccentric guy.
Luther Dickinson: (North Mississippi Allstarts guitarist): I had a cassette of Coltrane’s Wig. All the musician kids in the Memphis area were mad for it and passing the tape around, “Yo, check out these cats from NYC!”
Martin: I like the sincerity of [our eventual band name] even if it does sound like a law firm. It says who we are. It was [guitarist/singer] Oren Bloedow who came up with the idea of using our names. Medeski likes the name now. He’s talking about coming back as Coltrane’s Wig. He’s talked to me about it and I don’t think it’s such a great idea. I even talked to John Lurie about it and he’s like, “This is not a good thing.” Why is saying this now? I wonder if he was trying to sabotage us or something. [Laughs.]
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