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Nov 04, 2008

With their three-part project, Radiolarians, the members of the jazz trio Medeski Martin & Wood continue to ignore trends and go where the music takes them.

By Drew Stoga

Music industry logic dictates a simple process for operating a band.
Step one: record. Step two: promote. Step three: repeat.

The Jazz trio Medeski Martin & Wood is trying something different.
For their new Radiolarians project, the band—keyboardist John Medeski, drummer Billy Martin and bassist Chris Wood—set the lofty goal of writing, recording and releasing three albums in just one year. To make the project even more interesting, they decided to take the songs on the road, where they could finalize them in front of an audience before recording.
“The format is, we prepare for a tour by rehearsing and writing all new music,” Wood explains. “Then, we go on the tour and play this new music. Some of it might not be quite finished yet, but we work it out on tour in front of people. And after the tour, we go into the studio and record it. [Then] we move on to the next one.”
The series gets its name from microscopic organisms known as radiolarians, which the band first heard about when Martin stumbled upon a 19th-century book, Art Forms of the Ocean, by scientist and illustrator Ernst Haeckel.
In a remarkable defiance of the natural order of things, radiolarians grow their gorgeously colored skeletons on the outside of their soft inner core. It was the creatures’ uniqueness—and Haeckel’s exquisite drawings, which the band chose as the series’ cover art—that helped shape the project.
The first record in the series, Radiolarians 1, was released this past September. The band has recorded the series’ second installment and is writing in preparation for the third leg of touring. There are also plans to release all three records as a box set along with extra features, including a DVD documenting the process.

MMW is releasing Radiolarians on their own label.
After leaving the famed Blue Note label, MMW started Indirecto Records. Talking with the band, their enthusiasm about being free agents is clear.
“There is no one to answer to except ourselves. I think the biggest freedom is [the ability] to release not only what we want but when we want and as close together as we want,” remarks Wood.
Martin agrees, adding, “we have the freedom to experiment, which we love to do. And we don’t have to think about if the record company is going to be into it…It’s liberating.”
The trio’s first release, Notes from the Underground, came out in 1992. Over the last decade and a half, they’ve released a total of 15 albums.
“We have always complained that when you are on a traditional label and have a traditional record deal, you never can release and record and create as much music as you always wanted,” says Wood.
While the band’s skillful playing is clear on record, it is on the stage that they’re at their best. “We are always trying to find that balance of keeping things fresh and wide open, but we also like to groove and to rock. If we did either extreme all the time, it would get boring. We are always looking for the balance of tension and release—that’s what good music is all about,” says Wood.
Like all good jazz bands, the cornerstone of Medeski Martin & Wood’s live shows is. They frequently wander from the original tunes, essentially composing on the fly.
“We all improvise in our lives; you don’t have to be a musician. Everybody comes to certain crises in their life, and you have to deal with it,” Martin says. “You have to choose a direction. It’s the same thing with music.”

FLYP sat down with Billy Martin of Medeski Martin & Wood to discuss the jazz trio’s past, present and future. Watch the video interview here.

Various side projects keep MMW’s members busy when not touring as a trio.
Martin recently released a solo drumming DVD on Amulet Records, a label he runs out of his home and uses to release his own solo projects along with records from other like-minded musicians.
Wood has been recording and touring with his older brother, Oliver, as the duo The Wood Brothers.
Medeski, who produced and played on both of the Wood Brothers’s studio releases, has produced records for The Campbell Brothers, The Dirty Dozen Brass Band and his gospel super-group, The Word.
While the band still has a burning desire to share their music with their fans, all three admit that it’s getting increasingly difficult to be away from their families.
As Wood puts it, “we are all married and have families at home and houses and mortgages. That kind of life and the touring life don’t go together so well.”
Despite making a few concessions, Martin doesn’t anticipate the band will be throwing in the towel any time soon.
“As a group, I see us together for as long as we are alive and as long as we are making music that feels good,” he says. “Our chemistry from day one has been amazing. And there is also, outside of the music, a respect and a friendship and a love that we have. It’s like a family. That was there from the beginning, and that’s still there.”

On the Side: In FLYP Media’s interactive feature, check out the most stellar side projects that Medeski Martin & Wood’s members have engaged in.

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