Whether Chris Wood wants to admit it or not, he’s a jamhead hero. He’s revered by kids who camp out for days in fields just so they can see who pulls off the best 20-minute solo. He’s adored by leftover hippies who still want to feel funky. He’s a god to everyone who believes music can be a mind-altering experience, especially when there’s something to help you speed you on your way. He’s practically a jam Svengali.
The only problem: Wood never wanted any of that. When the bassist, along with pianist John Medeski and drummer Billy Martin, formed their namesake band back in 1991, it was to push the limits of jazz, stretching it past the stale bebop rehashes, the smooth jazz vomit and even the fusion explosions. They wanted to explore the limits of the traditional and push the concept of jazz itself. They dreamed about splicing in bits of hip-hop and George Clinton like it was meant to be there all along. They hoped for a time when Thelonious Monk and Thelonious Monster really were just a few letters apart. They didn’t, however, want to be the token jazz nuts in a sea of resin-crusted jam bands, something that more often than not, seems to be the case.
“We’re really not trying to appeal to that world,” Wood says. “It just happened. But we do have a lot of different sides to us musically, so we could easily alienate that community in the near future. We probably already have at times. When we did [2000’s] The Dropper, we got indie-rock fans. When we did the acoustic album [the group’s other 2000 release, Tonic] we got a whole bunch of jazz purists. We’re getting all sorts of different people doing what we want. But for some reason it always comes back to the jam-band scene.”
It wasn’t always that way. In Medeski, Martin & Wood’s fledgling stage, the trio was a New York avant-garde juggernaut, twisting jazz around until it looked like yoga master after a dare. The group’s first album, Notes From the Underground, was built around traditional instruments and clusters of triads and street funk. When the group got ready to tour, though, Medeski realized huffing a piano cross-country wasn’t workable. He switched to a Hammond B3 organ. He might as well have hung up a sign that said “Free Bong to Good Lungs.” By the time the group did two live collaborations with Phish in 1996, MMW’s fan base sported more dreadlocks than goatees.
“I had no idea where we were going or what we were getting into,” Wood says. “We were just improvising, in everything we did, from playing to the business side. We just made it up as we went along, and we end up somewhere totally unexpected.”
But it’s maybe the most fitting home for the band. While the group has had brief flirtations with the abstract and nostalgic, at its core Medeski, Martin & Wood is the hip-hop generation’s Booker T & the MGs, a strutting and grooved-out instrumental ass-shake that isn’t so much about jazz as it just cutting loose and feeling the funk. Medeski’s organ is as shocking and colorful as pools of gas on open water. Wood slaps on his bass like he’s got a beef with subwoofers. And Martin’s chunky beats are packed with enough bombastic swagger to make ?uestlove reconsider his chosen profession. Add in the group’s love of DJs—MMW’s work with DJ Logic is now damned near legendary—and it’s hard not to think of the trio as just a more quiet and experimental version of The Roots. Songs like “Pappy Check” and “Ten Dollar High,” both featuring DJ Love and off the group’s latest, Uninvisible (Blue Note), could easily be backing tracks to a neo soul meltdown. Others, like the DJ Olive infused “Off the Table” and “Your Name is Snake Anthony,” skew more toward the sonic collages of DJ Shadow.
Regardless of the tag, Wood sees the group as more of a bridge, bringing together ideas that might not normally intersect for an audience that could care less about them individually. It doesn’t matter to him that MMW isn’t so far gone as the group could have been. He realizes that there’s maybe a greater mission now.
“The whole experimental avant-garde thing is so relative,” Wood says. “Playing in New York, we always come across people trying to create new music. Some of them you know are too good to even be recognized for it. And it’s those people that make me think that we’re so mainstream. But we take those avant-garde ideas and attitudes, mix them up, and somehow they come out in a way that a lot of people are interested in. And that’s great. It opens people up to new things and ideas, and we can make a living doing what we want to.”