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Medeski, Martin and Wood may record for Blue Note, the most venerable of jazz labels, but the trio's music is practically impossible to describe without using a hyphen: Sometimes it's jazz-soul, sometimes it's jazz-funk, sometimes it's jazz-hip-hop, and sometimes it's an ultra-cool orgy of all this and more, more, more. Such eclecticism hasn't always endeared the group to purists, but a sizable number of jazz lovers have slowly grown to appreciate the rigorous musicianship at the heart of its expansive sound. So, too, have Nineties hippies, an unlikely constituency whose enthusiasm has left bassist Chris Wood uncertain about who, precisely, is coming to hear his band play.
"It's hard to tell," concedes Wood, who was raised in Boulder, "because the hardcore Deadheads tend to be more bold in terms of coming up to you and talking to you. And I find the jazzheads have a different attitude. Most jazz concertgoers will just sit back and kind of absorb what you're doing, and then they go home, so I don't wind up interacting with them as much, really. But rock concertgoers do whatever they can to get next to the band. People just want to hang out and smoke with you. It's part of the whole Deadhead etiquette that I wasn't ever really a part of, so it's all new to me." When asked how he reacts when devotees with doobies bust through security in search of him, he laughs as he admits, "I tend to hide."
Nevertheless, Wood and his partners, drummer Billy Martin and pianist/organist John Medeski, aren't exactly spurning the opportunity to reach out to listeners who know more about John Popper than John Coltrane. Their most recent full-length, 1998's Combustication, is a wide-ranging yet extremely accessible collection that draws from practically every genre that's earned a name, while The Combustication Remix EP, due in stores this month, offers up new versions of tunes from the previous disc as reconfigured by a slew of intriguing collaborators, including rapper Guru (of Gang Starr and Jazzmatazz fame), Automator (half of the ill-fated Dr. Octagon project that starred Kool Keith), Cibo Matto's Yuka Honda and mixology expert Bill Laswell. According to Wood, the project was inspired by aesthetic decisions, but if it brings the players to the attention of folks who would rather French-kiss a railroad track in the dead of winter than buy a jazz album, he won't complain. "We wouldn't mind for our music to go to another level in terms of radio play," he says. "That'd be nice."
Few jazz musicians admit to having a taste for something as potentially tacky as popularity, but Wood doesn't care; he's got his own path to walk. He moved to Boulder from California in 1976, when he was six years old, and subsequently gravitated toward the bass, which he plucked with a skill that belied his vintage. He became a familiar figure on the local music scene when he was still a student at Boulder High School, playing in everything from cover bands on the wedding circuit to jazz ensembles booked into joints like Falcone's. (He still speaks admiringly about Laura Newman, a Falcone's regular who gave him a chance to thump along with some of the finest instrumentalists in town.) He moved to Boston in 1989 to attend the New England Conservatory of Music, but while the institution gave him a chance to learn at the knees of accomplished artists such as Dave Holland, he was a lot more eager to perform than study.
Before long, he was part of a touring group that included one of his instructors, the gifted Bob Moses, and a recent New England Conservatory grad, John Medeski. He and Medeski kept in touch over the next year or so, during which they became members in good standing of the New York City-based "downtown" scene headed up by eccentrics like John Lurie and John Zorn. Then in 1991, Moses introduced Wood and Medeski to Billy Martin, a nimble drummer whose credits included sessions with Dave Liebman and onetime Denverite Bill Frisell, plus a two-and-a-half-year stint backing jazz-shlock pioneer Chuck Mangione. From the first time the three played together, it felt so good.
Although Medeski, Martin and Wood built their rep at highfalutin NYC jazz nightspots, they saw no reason why they should be restricted to them. By the time of their first recording, 1992's Notes From the Underground (originally released on the tiny Hap Jones imprint), they were already venturing into venues that booked jazz combos about as often as Britney Spears swears. Before long, the group had a following impressive enough to attract the notice of suits at Grammavision, who soon showed up with contracts in hand. During their association with the label, the performers put out three immensely likable long-players--1993's It's a Jungle in There, 1994's Friday Afternoon in the Universe and 1996's Shack-man--and an EP, Bubblehouse, that consisted of dance mixes.
This last undertaking likely would have scared off decision-makers at Blue Note a generation ago, but of late, the label has actively sought out jazzy music with crossover potential: "Cantaloop," a 1994 smash by Blue Note signee Us3 that turned a sample of Herbie Hancock's "Cantaloupe Island" into a hip-hop fave, remains the prototype. For this reason, Blue Noters actively romanced Medeski, Martin and Wood and kept a pledge of creative freedom once the band decided to join the team. "I feel like they signed us because we do what we do," Wood says. "And they've been totally hands off when it comes to our music. Whether being on Blue Note changes how we're perceived by the public, I don't know. Blue Note has such a strong association that I'm sure some people can't help but make that connection, and think we're going to sound different than we do. But I think we established ourselves a little bit before we signed with them, so a lot of people already knew who we were and what we're about.