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About to Break

John Medeski, Billy Martin and Chris Wood join an ensemble group in warping perceptions about turntablism.

Record collectors have long known that there's more to a slab of vinyl than whatever music is captured in the circular depressions rotating beneath the turntable's needle. There's the kinesthetic appeal of the material, at once so fragile and yet so sturdy, and the almost meditative quality of those shiny blue-black grooves that spin with the repetitive precision of a pendulum. And while many enthusiasts collect albums in an effort to preserve a bit of the past, to dismiss vinyl love as merely a nostalgia trip is to miss the point, as any self-respecting modern-day scratchhead, hip-hop turntablist or dance-floor jock will testify.

The Turntable Sessions, which arrive at the Boulder Theater next week, help solidify vinyl's role within the world of this-is-what's-next music. Organized by drummer/percussionist Billy Martin of Medeski, Martin & Wood, the two-night series will pair DJs with acoustic musicians in an improvisational setting that harks back to the roving experiments of the early age of avant-garde jazz. Martin will host the sessions (and occasionally sit in behind a drum kit and a bevy of percussive toys) by setting up a series of duet-type performances that mate the extemporaneous scratch-and-paste techniques of DJs Olive and Scotty Hard -- who've worked with Cypress Hill, DJ Logic, Kool Keith, Prince Paul, Sonic Youth and Sex Mob, collectively -- with a pipa (a traditional Chinese plucked instrument, played by Min Xiao Fen), an electric violin (manned by Charlie Burnham, a star of the avant-garde scene that swells around club Tonic, on New York's Lower East Side), and MC/guitarist Mike Ill. Keyboardist John Medeski and bassist (and Boulder native) Chris Wood will also join in.

According to Martin, a percussionist who's proven his propensity for forging new ground as both a solo artist and a trio member, the show is all about treating the turntable as an instrument with implications for musicians as well as for fans of wide-ranging genres. His goal is to illuminate an art form that's long been thriving in the shadows.

"The turntable has been an instrument from the beginning," Martin says. "For the early experimental composers who were working with tape machines and things like that, the turntable was there as well. It's a great toy, because you can change the pitch, drop the needle. People were already experimenting with them that way even when you started getting DJs who were visible in the whole beginning of the hip-hop movement. It was just such an outside thing. It didn't become a commercial movement for a long time.

"Now, with the evolution of hip-hop and DJs being such a social scene," he adds, "it's turned into a whole new genre. It's great. Now kids are growing up with another tool to make music."

The Turntable Sessions have roots in The LP Show, an expansive exhibit that went up last summer in ExitArt, a SoHo gallery that has long been considered one of New York City's enduring bastions of progressive art. The gallery invited both visual artists and musicians (including John Zorn, reigning king of the New York jazz underground) to decorate the interior of the huge venue with album covers. Many of the participants opted to group covers thematically -- one panel featured variations on Herb Alpert & the Tijuana Brass's infamous Whipped Cream and Other Delights -- while others played with design, creating, for example, an entire wall plastered in old jazz records that shared similar black-and-white color schemes. When ExitArt wanted to augment the exhibit with an accompanying performance series, its curators called Limor Tomor, a booking agent and friend of Martin's who'd previously booked musical programs into the space. At the time, Martin was in the midst of a breakbeat breakthrough, having just released illy B Eats Volume 1: Groove Band and Jive Around, his first solo album of pure beats for use by DJs. (The limited-edition, vinyl-only release is available through Martin's label, Amulet Records, at amulet.com.) For Tomor, Martin -- who also creates visual art -- was the perfect person to cultivate The LP Show's auditory companion.

"We talked about the idea of featuring the DJ as an ensemble instrumentalist," Tomor says. "I think for a while, especially in New York, it has been almost de rigueur to have a DJ in the band. You'd always see them back there, but God knows what they were doing. We wanted to pull them out of that and put them in a setting with acoustic musicians, where they were really creating uninterrupted soundscapes with a beginning, middle and end. We wanted it to be something that was open, but also controlled. So it's not just a sort of free-for-all, but more like a movement with an overall shape."

Soon after Martin and Tomor's initial brainstorming, the Turntable Sessions were launched in a four-week series that found Martin hosting duets and collaborations among different musicians and DJs with each installment: Chocolate Genius frontman Marc Anthony Thompson, Zorn alum and multi-instrumentalist Marty Ehrlich and Sex Mob trumpeter Steven Bernstein were among the players who appeared alongside DJ Olive and frequent MMW collaborator DJ Logic. Before long, the sessions generated a buzz that resonated within the New York media and underground-art circles. Each of the Wednesday-night shows sold out almost immediately -- no surprise considering the confinements of the Exit Art performance space. Those who showed up just to view The LP Show in the adjoining gallery could enjoy the music as well, as it was piped through the gallery's entire sound system.

"The theater is small. It's just a little black box that holds maybe a hundred people or so," says Tomor. "It created this intensity, because everyone would want to be so quiet and respectful, but you'd hear these spontaneous eruptions coming out of people, whether it was out of surprise or wonder at what someone was playing, or sometimes, people just laughing and shaking their heads because they never realized the sounds that a turntable could produce."

Fortunately for Colorado, Kirk Peterson, talent buyer for the Boulder Theater, had his ears and his mind open when the Turntable Sessions were spinning in New York, catching wind of the show through word of mouth. Though Martin says he envisions taking the show on the road in various incarnations this spring or summer, the ensemble's upcoming stop at the theater marks the first and only time the show has materialized in a space outside of ExitArt. Tomor says Peterson contacted her in late fall and was sensitive to the unique nature of the performance.

"It's really more of a presentation than just a regular concert," she says. "It's something to take in and think about. It's non-traditional and unlike the shows that people might see from any of these artists if they were to come through individually. That's sort of a hard thing to explain to a promoter. But we were excited to do it because we really felt like the Boulder people really got it."

Tomor and Martin say they contemplated trying to incorporate some of the visual aspects that made The LP Show and the Turntable Sessions pack such an inspiring one-two punch but ultimately decided to veer on the side of minimalism. "It would have been very difficult to try to capture the spirit of The LP Show," Tomor says. "You'd need a huge space to really give the artwork the respect that it deserves. We figured with so many people on the road, we'd keep it simple. The music will be plenty."

Plenty, and then some. Martin says that, even though the entire Medeski, Martin & Wood trio will perform during the show, the emphasis will be on the unscripted exchanges that take place between nearly random combinations of two or three players: Min Xiao Fen on the pipa with DJ Olive or Scotty Hard scratching along to Charlie Burnham's violin, or some other spontaneous musical scramble. The surprise, then, will be not only in making sense of whatever configurations eventually make their way to the stage, but in detecting the differences in tone, mood and style that crop up when different players intermingle.

"I think a lot of people don't see how any turntablist can sound any different from another, once he reaches a certain skill level," says Martin. "But you've got these guys like Olive, who is really a master and has techniques that I have never seen anyone else do. Or Scotty Hard, who we call that because of the sort of harder, more in-your-face way that he puts it out there, never holding back. It's just like any other person who's a master of his instrument, when you just feel their personality coming out in the way that they play."

Martin expects both performances to end with some sort of ensemble jam from the entire cast, though he stresses that Medeski, Martin & Wood fans who think they know what they're in for should be prepared to dump their expectations at the door. The Turntable Sessions won't resemble that band's free-range live performances so much as a kind of sound exhibit.

"We don't want people to be confused that it is some sort of dance-party show," Martin says. "It's the kind of thing where you sit down and check it out. The really interesting thing about it is that there are no rules. It's not like it has to groove."

Local audiences, Martin adds, have been receptive to varying methods that Medeski, Martin & Wood have tried out in the past, making Colorado one of the band's preferred performance destinations.

"It feels right that this is the first one," he says. "I don't know what it is, but there just is something about Boulder. Outside of New York, I can't think of a better place for something new to break."


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