The Other ‘M’

Ever been to a Medeski, Martin and Wood concert? This isn’t Kenny G putting you to sleep in an elevator at J.C. Penny’s. John Medeski, Billy Martin and Chris Wood blast music apart and piece it back together in the blink of an eye. Just when you think jazz can’t surprise you anymore, you start to wonder: “What the hell just happened?” The Cynic had a chance to chat with the Dr. Frankenstein of Drums himself, MMW’s Billy Martin, about the group’s new album (recorded with Scofield), his thoughts on labels and the ideas of an icon.Vermont Cynic: You’re touring with John Scofield and you collaborated with him on your latest album, “Out Louder.” How did the idea for this album come about?Billy Martin: Well, we kept in touch over the years and occasionally played together, sitting in with each other and stuff. We were both out of any major contracts, which sort of limit your ability to collaborate and do other projects, so we kind of jumped on that. We thought it would be a good way to get a label going.VC: Along with John Scofield, you’ve played with some pretty amazing musicians over the years. Is there anyone you haven’t played with who you’d like to in the future?BM: Well, I’m very lucky. I feel like I’m already doing that. I’m playing with this incredible piano player, Dave Burrell from Philadelphia. [Jazz saxophonist] Ornette Coleman is someone we’ve always talked about being excited to play with someday. VC: You played with Phish in 1995 and you’ve also played Bonnaroo and moe.down, so you’re often slapped with the “jam band” label. How do you feel about that?BM: I don’t like it (laughs)! It’s a bad name! I don’t like the sound of it. When I hear that name it just makes me cringe because it’s not a beautiful sounding name like “rock ‘n’ roll” or “jazz.” I feel like a lot of the music people call “jam band” music is very narrow and shallow when it comes to really jamming and creating something and improvising.VC: How do you feel you’ve progressed as a band since you started 15 years ago?BM: I think we’ve progressed like any natural organism. We’re just evolving and developing our language together. That’s very important to us, and if it doesn’t evolve or grow then we’re just going to die, we’re just not going to play together anymore.VC: Who is making music today that is outside that “shallow, narrow” realm?BM: There are so many different types of music that I like. There’s a band called Deerhoof that I like, but that doesn’t cover everything; they do one thing for me. Off the top of my head, when it comes to pop music, I like PJ Harvey just because she’s so powerful in performance and song writing. I’m not really a songwriter – I consider myself a composer – the sounds are my language, but her … I feel like she has a handle on all of it.VC: So do you see a pretty bright future for yourself playing with Medeski and Wood?BM: Yeah, I do. I see it in waves. For instance, the touring is sporadic. We’re going to be struggling to keep it together, and other times we’re going to be turning down work and those are all different waves. Sometimes we need a break from one another just because … we’re burnt out. Bands have to be careful, especially this kind of band where we rely on improvisation and a fresh feel on stage. VC: Bob Dylan said recently, “I don’t know anybody who has made a record that sounds decent in the past 20 years.” How do you feel computers and other technologies impact the production of music?BM: I’m not a technical person, but I believe there is something to be said about the way things were recorded in the past. That sound was a really beautiful sound and the art of recording has dropped in quality. At the same time, I think you can make a record sound really good and get a really beautiful, pure recording with a computer. I think we’re just going through a growing phase.