CD Review of Radiolarians I by Medeski, Martin & Wood
Recommended if you like
Galactic, 1970s Miles Davis,
Herbie Hancock
Medeski, Martin & Wood:
Radiolarians I

Reviewed by Mojo Flucke, PhD


t's not always easy to get into Medeski, Martin & Wood. While the instrumental postmodern jazzers know exactly how to rock out and make the wickedest funk grooves, they have this propensity to go off on tangents sometimes. Only the most hardcore fans can actually say they like some of the more ambient or free-jazzy stuff they do, or the noisy droning cuts – kind of like only seriously demented Velvet Underground disciples claim "to get into" Lou Reed's Metal Machine Music.

Oh, but this album is anything but incomprehensible. It's sublime. It is rock. It is jazz. It is funk. A perfect fusion of the three – with occasional ambient and free-jazzy departures that get reeled in before you're thinking, "Where did I set down that Private Eyes disc I was planning to play next?" The idea, says MMW, is for the band to get together for five days, work up some new material, tour furiously as a way of developing the songs and improvisational structure, and then at the end get into the studio and record the set in three days max. This is the first of three such Radiolarians the band plans to create on its new label.

They've hit upon something on Radiolarians I, which definitely focuses on New Orleans riddims. On "Professor Nohair," a tribute to Professor Longhair and Dr. John's frenetic style of piano playing, John Medeski throws down a piano funk that will make 'Fess fans weep, it's so beautiful and reminiscent of the late genius's work, perfectly punctuated by Billy Martin's chunka-chunka-chunka Crescent City backbeat. "Free Go Lily" is an Art Neville/Meters funk with a delicious Clavinet line (think "Superstition" or "Outa-Space") driving the rhythm. And "Sweet Pea Dreams" is even more deeply Meters, with Medeski's Hammond B-3 organ dialed in to the same shrill settings Neville employed to cut through the smoky bass and guitar sounds of his mates back in the day. It's not just flawless execution of a fantastic region's trademark style that flourished during a fantastic musical era of funky rock that makes these tracks so good; it's the fact that they're paying homage through their jams yet retaining the serious MMW jazz style that transcends rock and lighter-weight jam band fare. One wonders how great they would have sound backing up 'Fess or a James Booker, the architects of New Orleans funk along with Neville and the Meters. Booker, a classically trained virtuoso first and an R&B/jazz piano-smasher second, would have had a field day with these guys, as he could have run with their most cerebral jazz constructs.

The record's not all New Orleans fare. There's the Latin-tinged "Muchas Gracias," and "First Light," straight-ahead modern jazz that easily could have passed as a track on a one of those Miles Davis records right before Bitches Brew, back when the trumpet guru was helping three keyboard players – Joe Zawinul, Chick Corea, and Herbie Hancock – find their musical voices, all at once in his band. A couple free-jazz droners, "God Fire" and "Hidden Moon," end the set, if you like that sort of thing. If MMW had popped in a couple more smokin' New Orleans-style funk cuts in their place – or, ohh, how about the trio's interpretation of the city's brass-band parade music? – Radiolarians I would be darn near perfect.

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