Music News

Brooklyn Knights

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.

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Eric Waggoner