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“I’ve played so much with them over the years that I’m comfortable,” Scofield adds, “but, at the same time, we don’t actually get to play all that often – so it’s always fresh.”
Whether embroiled in a fierce, knotted groove or talking history, literature, or music in the hours before and after shows, the bonhomie between these four committed improvisors fuels a musical dynamic that is at once foot-tappingly simple and deeply, powerfully resonant. Since first convening nearly 17 years ago, Medeski Scofield Martin & Wood‘s kinship both onstage and off has fostered a continually escalating degree of musical interplay, exquisitely captured on their third studio collaboration, Juice – available September 16, 2014, via Medeski Martin & Wood’s Indirecto imprint. “For us,” Medeski explains, “a lot of what makes this work stems from our relationship outside the music. This is our life, and that’s important.”
With four multi-faceted musicians participating as equals, anything and everything is possible. The band’s first collaboration together, the now classic 1997 release, A Go Go, featured Scofield compositions exclusively, while 2006’s Out Louder was an experiment in spontaneous, collective co-composition. To give shape to what eventually became Juice, Medeski Scofield Martin & Wood sought common ground and inspiration in the intersection of improvisation and rhythms from the Afro-Latin diaspora. “Billy Martin made us a compilation of all this boogaloo and Latin music to inspire us,” Medeski recalls. “We all love music from Brazil, the Caribbean, and Latin America, and it has always been intertwined with jazz. We got together and started exploring that connection in our own way.”
“It’s our version of different African-derived forms,” says Scofield. “Or, at least, that’s what we started with…eventually we said, ‘This is the outline, but we can do whatever the hell we want.’”
“When you go into the studio and start fleshing things out in the moment,” Martin adds, “you have to celebrate the collective sum of the parts at work.”
Honoring their initial intention, the band member’s each contributed compositions combining deep groove feels with concise, hook-laden melodies. From these relatively basic components emerged a cohesive, exploratory collection that is also genuinely accessible and – dare it be said – fun. And, it proves an ideal showcase for Medeski Scofield Martin & Wood’s deft, personal interplay. “More difficult tunes can take away the brain space it takes to truly conceptualize freedom,” Scofield explains. “If it’s hard, you’re thinking about the notes. If it’s simple and more open, you’re just thinking about where it’s going to go next.”
What makes Juice so endlessly fascinating lies in the balance – in the virtuoso, offhand manner that the quartet reconcile melody and rhythm, song and groove, freedom and form. Wood’s “Helium” straps interlocking melodic cells to a buoyant Martin backbeat, escalating the harmonic density while remaining undeniably swinging. “That’s my twisted take on Latin music,” Wood explains, “mixed with some sort of harmolodic disco-funk a la Ornette Coleman.”
Martin’s breezy “Louis the Shoplifter” was also inspired by Latin rhythms. “It was a very simple melody,” Martin says, “that I wanted to realize more fully. The rhythmic sensibilities of these guys brought it to life, and Medeski extrapolates on the chords brilliantly in his solo.”
Both “Helium” and “Louis the Shoplifter” feature Medeski on acoustic piano – an instrument previously unheard on prior Medeski Scofield Martin & Wood projects. “John really got into the piano,” Scofield observes admiringly.
“Throughout the record, he’s using it in great, rhythmic ways. A lot of jazz guys aren’t comfortable stepping out of the straight jazz tradition. But Medeski can play Latin and rock piano, all really blues-based, in an ensemble setting in a way that is really refreshing.”
The performance of Scofield’s “North London” perfectly encapsulates the band’s knack for blending swaggering grooves and more open-hearted melodicism, as it alternates between a static, slow-boiling second-line sections and haunting, vocal-like passages underpinned by Medeski’s frothy organ. “On Out Louder,” Scofield explains, “We did a cover of the Beatles’ ‘Julia,’ and I realized how we could play really beautifully with this band. That made me want to explore more lyrical directions on this album.” With that in mind, the quartet close the album with a disarming take on Bob Dylan’s “The Time’s They Are A-Changin’,” rendered with almost hymn-like clarity.
The iconic Dylan song is one of four provocative covers on Juice, which opens with a funky, cuica-enlivened take on soul-jazz pioneer Eddie Harris’s “Sham Time.” “When you do someone else’s song,” Medeski says, “it should give you the opportunity to go somewhere you wouldn’t go normally. But you also need to take the song to a different place. A cover tune can be a way to push us to an unexpected place – like ‘Light My Fire.’ I never thought we’d record that!” Suggested by Wood, the Doors’ classic elicits a bluesy reduction of the vocal line from Scofield and cleverly incorporates the descending chord progression of the song’s famous opening into the solo sections.
“’Sunshine of Your Love’ was completely deranged by Martin and Wood,” says Scofield. Weighing in at nearly 11 minutes, the total dub-driven deconstruction of the Cream classic is an unexpected highlight. “We all knew it, and I just started playing the organ riff,” recalls Medeski. “We didn’t rehearse it at all. It just kinda happened…it created itself.”
From start to finish, Juice is compelling evidence of Medeski Scofield Martin & Wood‘s ability to refract basic musical elements into soundscapes of kaleidoscopic complexity – which are nevertheless listenable, danceable, and refreshing in their spontaneity. “This album was so easy to make,” Medeski summarizes. “It was so much fun, and everything fell into place so naturally. Even though we each brought things in, it took on a life of its own”
“Reacting to each other is really what it’s about,” says Scofield, “and that’s what makes this music work. We’ve gotten to the point where we can come together and make something that is identifiable and organic, yet it’s growing and changing all the time.”
“As a band,” Martin concludes, “we are right where we should be. More than anywhere else, you can hear that special chemistry in Juice.”
© 2014 Stuart Levine
© 2014 Stuart Levine
© 2014 Stuart Levine
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Calabro Music Media