By Bree Davies
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By Jon Solomon
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"We kind of fit in the cracks," he adds. "People on the pop side of things probably think we're jazz, and people into jazz probably think--well, they probably don't know what the hell we are."
Combustication, Medeski, Martin and Wood's Blue Note bow, doesn't go out of its way to clear up matters. "Sugar Craft," the opening track, mates Jimmy Smith/Jimmy McGriff organ soul with assorted turntable gymnastics courtesy of DJ Logic, a New York spinner whom the musicians met through one of their peers, Living Colour ax-wielder Vernon Reid. That's followed by "Start-Stop," a spacey excursion into early Seventies Miles Davis territory that's propelled by a spooky Wood bass line; "Whatever Happened to Gus," a largely acoustic soundscape; "Coconut Boogaloo," an irresistible swinger; and "Everyday People," a Sly and the Family Stone ditty that Medeski transforms into, believe it or don't, a gospel song. Still, what's most surprising about the disc isn't its variety but its coherence. Combustication contains a lot of different pieces, but all of them fit together.
When Medeski, Martin and Wood set off in support of Combustication, they invited DJ Logic to join them--and Wood credits their interactions with spurring The Combustication Remix EP. "We like the DJ medium," Wood says. "There's some really interesting music done with DJs and remixes, and I think from a DJ's point of view, this was a chance for them to do something where they could stretch out within their medium."
Two of the remixers chosen to participate were already part of the family: Martin, who folds blips, bleeps and a more pronounced drum thwack into the discreetly restructured "Hey-Hee-Hi-Ho," and DJ Logic, whose "Start-Stop" brings the turntablist antics and break-beats that are mere decoration on the original to the forefront. Honda, too, is a friend as well as a clever and canny aural provocateur; her "Sugar Craft," complete with random vocalizations, a speedy tempo and wild grooves, is easily the disc's most purely entertaining concoction. But Wood didn't meet the other contributors until after they'd done their work, making him doubly glad that he enjoyed their efforts. The tune overseen by Laswell--"Satan's Church of Hypnotized Logic"--mates two Combustication selections, "Church of Logic" and "Hypnotized," with what sounds like stereo instructions, the Automator-overhauled "Nocturne" uses massive, sludgy beats to chilling effect, and Guru's renovation of "Whatever Happened to Gus" comes complete with a freshly penned rap ("There's no justice/It's just us/Word to my man Gus/Seems like no one to trust").
Rather than attempting to reproduce these shenanigans in a live setting, Wood says the band's upcoming set of concerts will play up its multiple personalities. "The first set we're going to do is all acoustic music, which is what we've been doing lately in New York. We've done a run of acoustic gigs at a tiny place called Club Tonic, and we've been having a good time exploring that side of things again. Then, after that, we're going to do a complete electric set, including a lot of the stuff from Combustication and some of the other things we've been doing lately."
This approach might seem schizophrenic, but Wood isn't concerned. "I think for the most part people have been really open to what we're doing. If they don't really check out the music, it's easy for some of them--the people who are really into jazz--to think, 'Well, they're attracting a certain kind of crowd, so they must be this, or they must be that.' But if they really listen to the music, I think they'll see that we're trying to do our own thing, and getting better at it all the time. And if it's confusing for some people, that's okay. In fact, we kind of like that. We like it that people can't categorize us, so it leaves us free to do pretty much whatever we want. And as long as we can continue to play the type of music we want, we'll be happy."
Greater success can bring with it a greater incentive for compromise, as Wood knows well: The group has been part of the lineup at numerous H.O.R.D.E. tours, even though the sound quality at arenas and amphitheaters can be fatal for jazz. "There's no subtlety in those kinds of places, and I think our music is based a lot around subtleties--or at least it is at its best," Wood says. "I feel like when it gets mediocre is when we're trying to appeal to this mass of people. So I think that if we can keep a certain amount of intimacy, it really helps us." He claims that he was genuinely pleased when a proposed 1999 H.O.R.D.E. jaunt to which Medeski, Martin and Wood had been invited fell through a few weeks back, adding, "I feel like we're playing as big of places as we'd ever want to play at this point. If we play anything bigger than something with about 2,000 seats, the music starts to go downhill."
If the group's audience keeps building, the bassist may have to revisit this issue. In the meantime, however, he's busy trying to figure out why listeners devoted to Phish are also smitten by Medeski, Martin and Wood. "We sort of intellectually understand it," he concedes. "I can understand that the so-called jam band thing is about improvising, not knowing what's going to happen--and for some people, that's jazz, I guess. On top of that, we don't always use jazz forms or jazz rhythms; sometimes we're using rhythms that are much more associated with funk or hip-hop. But we're really trying to bring a jazz mentality to it, and have those things interact in the way they would in jazz.