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Spread the Jam

Medeski, Martin and Wood branch out beyond jazz.

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.

"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.

"I guess it's easy for people to see us as a jam band, because we do jam," he says. "But since I never really checked out those bands or that music, it's weird for me, because I don't really know what I'm being associated with. And it just gets more surreal all the time."

Medeski, Martin and Wood, with DJ Logic. 8 p.m. Wednesday, April 14, Paramount Theatre, 1631 Glenarm Place, $23.50, 303-534-8336; 9:30 p.m. Thursday, April 15, Fox Theatre, 1135 13th Street, Boulder, $21, 303-443-3399.

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