It's not just the unique fusion of musical elements tossed carefully into its grab bag of sounds. In the trio's show at Mass MoCA's Hunter Center Thursday night, it turned the expected format of an improvisation- heavy performance on its head, opening with an expansively adventurous first set and capping the night with a crowdpleasing second set heavy on dance-ready grooves.
Each band member lept nimbly from instrument to instrument, influence to influence, mood to mood. Yet John Medeski stood out as a mad wizard of sorts, alternating among a Hammond B3 organ, Moog synthesizer, Wurlitzer electric piano, melodica and an acoustic Steinway - often playing two or three at once.
It was in service of a performance that ranged from radical to reassuring, with stretches of avant-jazz exploration answered by the salve of roaring, organ-led rave-ups.
The trio took the stage full of its characteristic musical confidence, finding its feet in what appeared to be an open improvisation; reaching for its sometimes challenging form of musical telepathy while performing without any semblance of a net.
MMW often opens shows with free-form improvisation it labels simply as " Open." Sometimes the band will pause and begin another open exploration before eventually seguing into a composition. Thus, the first half of an MMW first set is a game of "spot the song" for those without an encyclopedic knowledge of group's repertoire.
A frequently groove-less, stream-of-consciousness jam flowed through much of the first set; with an occasional bass line from Chris Wood (who alternated between an acoustic and two electric basses, including a Hofner) or an organ peel from Medeski eliciting a cheer from the crowd. Unable to identify any songs, I peppered my notes with time stamps and scribbled "Song?" as an occasional refrain. Near the end of the first set, Wood engaged in a wild deconstruction of a bass solo, with the aid of a drum stick and jarring flutters of warped notes. Percussionist Billy Martin, on his feet for much of the show as he alternated among his kit, cowbells, chimes, and a tambourine, rhythmically squeeked the inside of what appeared to be a small snare drum. Medeski painted with the high register of his clavinet, and suddenly an unfussy groove emerged.
MMW improvisations have a tendency to lose their center of gravity and stutter when both Wood and Martin go for texture and mood rather than locking down the rhythmic core. And so some stretches of this sequence were better suited to thoughtful appreciation in a café or living room than, well, whatever 600 people do when they're standing together for three hours in a big room watching a band. But all told, the first set amounted to the most adventurous hour of live musical performance I've witnessed in a long time.
As if anticipating the desires of the less-than-die-hard fans craving an opportunity to dance, the band bulldozed into the second set with a three-pack of pulsing, grooving tunes that stayed pretty close to the script of their recorded versions. "Jeane's Scene," "Amish Pintxos" and "Walk Back" showed the other deadly side of the band's sound, with Medeski's melodic touch (largely on the Steinway, though he also worked out his three-keyboard technique) complemented by the endlessly inventive rhythm section.
After a solo for Wood (a percussion solo closed the first set), the slinky groove of "Padrecito," the finger-popping "Won Ton," and the all-smiles ferocity of the anthemic "Undone" capped the set in a take-no-prisoners surge. The entire second set was culled from the band's new, threealbum "Radiolarians," project - a sequencing choice that only hints at the breahtaking span of moods and styles, all indelibly MMW's own, explored on those albums.
The night was yet another argument that this road-happy band is among the most consistently creative and adventurous groups playing the large- cluband- theater circuit. Much as it may in the middle of some open jam, MMW has hit upon a groove, and it's allowed the band to get away with this for 18 years. Let's hope it continues to find the inspiration to fuel this journey.