Online since August 2002

Strength in time together
Medeski, Martin and Wood still going strong a decade later

Published October 2005

Turbula recommends Friday Afternoon in the Universe
Friday Afternoon in the Universe
Gramavision; Salem, Mass.: 1995

To hear sound clips or learn more about this release, Turbula recommends viewing its Amazon.com entry.

Blue Note Records: 1998

To hear sound clips or learn more about this release, Turbula recommends viewing its Amazon.com entry.

Blue Note Records: 2002

To hear sound clips or learn more about this release, Turbula recommends viewing its Amazon.com entry.

Before there was The Bad Plus, there was Medeski, Martin and Wood – a trio of twenty-something white guys that made jazz seem cool to people who might not otherwise listen to it. With their soul-based grooves, seemingly omniscient interaction when improvising, and prodigious talent on their instruments (keyboards, drums and bass, respectively), MM&W set the jazz world on its ear when they hit the national stage in the early 1990s.

Talking to drummer Billy Martin about the band's decade-plus run of success, he seems a bit surprised by it all still. And he doesn't see anything at all unorthodox about his band's approach to jazz.

"I don't think we started anything; I think maybe we brought a greater awareness to a younger audience. To me, bands doing interpretations of popular songs is part of the tradition of jazz," he said by phone from his New York home, where he'd just gotten back from his morning commute of dropping his oldest son off at school.

"We kind of go back and forth; we might do Duke Ellington then King Sunny Ade."

Longstanding bands have been rare in jazz since the end of the big band era – most jazz acts are built around a star with a rotating cast of sidemen. Martin allowed that 10 years in the same band can present challenges.

"It's hard to make music with someone if you're having issues. We've had lots of issues, because we've gotten through so much, and we care about the music so much. It's like a marriage. We have to grow together. We know it's not easy all the time to try to be selfless. That's the challenge – to be selfless.

Medeski, Martin and WoodMedeski, Martin and Wood
Photo by Danny Clinch
"There's no leader, it's democratic. It's very challenging – and of course, touring together, being with each other, making decisions together – it can be very draining.

"Keeping it fresh is the most important thing. If we can't keep it fresh, we're not gonna play together anymore. That's the most important thing – that there's something exciting between us.

"It's usually just by playing."

At the same time, he said that the time invested in the band brings certain benefits as well.

"One of the things that makes us stronger is that when we get through these crises together, we know that if that didn't make the band break up, we're here for the long run!

"Also, keeping it open, we can take a year or two off for side projects, family time. Then the getting back together, it's like, that's cool. That's nice to get away from each other.

"Now the relationship is stronger than ever – we're friends. Cook together, families get together. That's the benefit, we've been doing it a long time."

Martin said the trio originally got together in New York, as much out of frustration and boredom as anything else.

"John (Medeski) and Chris (Wood) and I were tired of being sidemen in other bands," he explained of the group's founding.

Medeski Martin and WoodMedeski, Martin and Wood
Photo by Martyn Gallina-Jones

"I was sort of immersed in the downtown New York scene. There was John Zorn, and playing in John Lurie's Lounge Lizards – a sort of totally original approach to making music. Just growing up and playing with Bob Moses. It was an independent sort of attitude that they were going to do what they were going to do. That inspired me to start my own band.

MM&W started out before the Internet made being an independent musician economically feasible; they did benefit, however, from being signed to Gramavision, then an independent label that specialized in experimental and nonmainstream jazz.

"A big part of our success was we toured a lot – got out on the road and spread the word that way. The touring and performing live were the key to spreading the word, that really put us on another level in terms of being able to support ourselves."

But Martin said today's young jazz musicians have a conundrum; While the Internet makes it easier to find an audience for your music – "There's definitely an interest in it, people who want to check out more experimental stuff" – making a living at it may be tougher now: "I think there's a lot of niche little labels, independent stuff going on. Never in the forefront, you have to dig in and try to find it. If you're looking to get a deal, signed to a label, pay the mortgage, it's not that simple."

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