There was no doubt in anyone's mind, Medeski Martin and Wood bassist Chris Wood remembers. This was the album that was going to get them booted from Blue Note.
"That was one of the reasons for the title," Wood explains from backstage, a few hours before MMW's show at House of Blues in Vancouver. "We knew there was no way they were going to go for it. We were convinced they weren't going to want to have anything to do with us after we gave them that record, and that we were going to have to move to another label. So we called it The Dropper."
Great story. True? Maybe. Doesn't matter; listening to The Dropper, which was released to almost unanimous critical acclaim in 2000, you can sort of believe it. You almost kind of want it to be true.
Though some listeners only caught up with it on the album's release, The Dropper emerged from the jazz-funk border zone that Medeski Martin and Wood have explored for almost a decade. Heavy on Jimmy Smith and Booker T.-style organ rills, propelled by digital samples and break beats, zipped up in a hooded sweat shirt, clad in steel-toed boots and wraparound shades, MMW's The Dropper was a surprise hit with the underground jazz and hip-hop set ("The fringes of a lot of crowds," Wood theorizes). Entered on several year-end "Best of 2000" lists, the album was widely praised as one of the year's most fully formed inter-genre experiments.
In the end, The Dropper got props from underground jazz fans, club kids, heads, freaks, geeks, funk soul brothers, college radio and mainstream rock press . . . oh, and the suits at Blue Note loved it, too, despite the band's fears. In the end, it seemed, the ones most surprised by the album's success were Wood, keyboardist John Medeski and drummer Billy "Illy B" Martin.
Which is not to say that it wasn't a long time coming. Medeski Martin and Wood first coalesced in 1991, on the fringes of NYC's club-jazz scene. Each had pulled time in a variety of avant-garde outfits: Marc Ribot's Shrek, the Mandala Octet and the Lounge Lizards were some of the settings in which they separately and collectively honed their chops.
From the beginning they were (and remain) accredited musicians all; their eclectic individual résumés become outright staggering when combined. Kentucky-born Medeski had been asked to join Jaco Pastorius' Japanese touring band in 1981, when he was all of 16 years old (his mom vetoed the trip). Wood studied and performed with Bob Moses, and toured and recorded with John Zorn. Martin, a prolific drummer and avid break-beat collector/producer, mounted his own label called Amulet Records in 1997, specializing in avant-garde and indigenous percussion music.
So when MMW went into its practice room-cum-studio to record The Dropper -- a first-ever experiment -- there was a combined history of about 30 years from which to draw.
"We couldn't have made that album if we hadn't done it in our rehearsal space," Wood says firmly. "All of our stuff, everything we'd accumulated over the years, was right there -- detuned pianos, weird percussion instruments -- a lot of things we'd have had to leave behind if we'd gone to someone else's studio. We'd never had that freedom before. And we were really comfortable in the space. Recording there had a lot to do with the orchestral sound of the album."
Somewhere in a cavernous basement in Brooklyn, New York, a space with the unlikely moniker of "Shacklyn," sits the most eclectic goddamned collection of instruments and gear in the English-speaking world, to judge from the results. For their fourth Blue Note release -- their ninth overall, counting the best-of collection Last Chance to Dance Trance (Perhaps) and the live acoustic Tonic -- MMW locked themselves into their basement rehearsal space and reached into their past in order to concoct one of 2000's most forward-thinking records.
The past they revisited was MMW's avant-garde roots. Medeski Martin and Wood are no strangers to reinventing their sound top to bottom, which means that liking one or two of the band's records doesn't mean you'll necessarily like the rest. Their first full-length, 1992's Notes From the Underground on Accurate Jazz, featured largely acoustic piano arrangements, with New Orleans-flavored funk rhythms courtesy of Martin. Notes wasn't a traditionalist jazz aficionado's dream by any means, but as quickly as the following year -- on It's a Jungle in Here (Rykodisc) -- MMW offered a reworking of John Coltrane's "Syeeda's Song Flute," and a jaw-dropping amalgam of Thelonious Monk's "Bemsha Swing" and Bob Marley's "Lively Up Yourself" that signaled their deeper funk leanings. 1996's noisy Shack Man (Gramavision) and 1998's somewhat cooler Combustication (their Blue Note debut, and a watershed recording in terms of the band's hip-hop sound) further displayed their debts to jazz-funk visionaries like Grant Green, Richard "Groove" Holmes and Jimmy Smith.
But by 2000, MMW's curious hybrid style of jazz, funk and hip-hop had undergone a bit of high profiling in the popular mind. The band had been well-received on the H.O.R.D.E. tour that preceded Combustication, and the Beastie Boys' Check Your Head and Ill Communication had dug into the same musical history that MMW had been mining. The Beasties, though they weren't, and made no claim to be, trained musicians, nonetheless introduced the "raw groove band" feel to a generation of listeners who had no interest whatever in hearing Miles Davis' electric sets at Fillmore West. Had The Dropper represented no more than a sonic retread of that by-now-familiar sound, it likely wouldn't have hit as hard as it did with mainstream or jazz listeners.
So in the end it's the sheer noise on the record, oddly, that makes its musicianship shine all the brighter; and following on the heels of Tonic, a bone-stripped acoustic record through and through, the layered production and studio work on The Dropper is nothing short of astounding. The members of MMW produced it themselves, with assistance from acclaimed engineer Scotty Hard (Wu-Tang Clan, P.M. Dawn), so it's perhaps no surprise that the album manages to be credible instrumental hip-hop and reliable avant-jazz at the same time.
"We Are Rolling," the leadoff track, begins from inside a bomb blast, then moves forward into Bitches Brew-style keyboards and bong-hit percussion that sounds always on the verge of tripping over its own feet as it runs, yet somehow manages to remain upright. It's controlled chaos, and it's revisited on songs like "Bone Digger" and "Philly Cheese Blunt." But then there's the South American-tinged "Partido Alto," on which longtime Sun Ra sideman Marshall Allen contributes sax; and "Note Bleu," a fuzzy minor-key slink that features associate Marc Ribot filling out the space with his trademarked razor-thin guitar work. Not a moment of dead air clutters The Dropper, which, far from getting MMW dumped from Blue Note, in fact brought a passel of new, younger listeners to that venerable label.
The Dropper might actually represent a high-water mark for Medeski Martin and Wood -- a feat-to-beat position previously occupied, in many listeners' minds, by Combustication. Several months into a tour that demands frequent reworkings of its material, Wood finds that the album still holds up.
"I think one of the good things about The Dropper was its balance of structured songs, [versus] songs that had room in them to improvise," he says. MMW in fact spends a lot of stage time improvising, in the way that "cool jazz" players once did -- going by feel and intonation, not by running time and arpeggio fireworks on every line. It's a skill that seems to work better the more the band understates the rhythm and melody; MMW's live improvisatory work (captured in glorious detail on Tonic) isn't so much a man-by-man talent showcase as it is an unfolding and unpacking of the hidden possibilities inside each song.
"There's a definite responsibility we feel to each song as an individual creation," says Wood, "but there's not a formula. The majority of [The Dropper] was built on improvised rhythms anyway, which we filled out with overdubs of our own, or with guests, as each song seemed to need them. In concert it's kind of a dual responsibility, both to the source material of the music that you're playing, and also to the necessity of keeping it open and unique and fresh. If we tried to replicate songs note for note in concert, songs that originally grew from improv sessions, we'd lose everything."
MMW is currently on the far end of touring for The Dropper, and plans to go back into the studio toward the end of the year. But there's no downtime between major projects. Martin has just released the first of the Illy B Eats series on his Amulet label, composed of his own break beats; plus he's recently become a father. Wood plays on a variety of projects in various stages of development, including Galactic drummer Stanton Moore's upcoming solo record on Verve, while Medeski is putting the finishing touches on an instrumental gospel album with the North Mississippi All Stars.
"There's never a dull moment," deadpans Wood.
"All the people who've come with us, they've stayed," he says of the fan base they've picked up as a result of The Dropper. "I don't know, it's hard to tell who's listening. I hear the album is big with hip-hop kids, but that's just what I've been told. I think the real meat of any crowd, the hard-core bebop jazz fans or mainstream rock fans" -- MMW once opened for Dave Matthews; the mind reels -- "they aren't going to be into us. It's the ones on the sides of those crowds that are going to like it. The ones looking for something a little different, or a little more challenging. The fringes."
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