Here's a hypothetical dilemma. You're standing in front of a record store, and someone hands you the latest album by genre-busting trio Medeski, Martin & Wood. You have to go file it in the proper section.
No equivocation or caveats are allowed. Where does it go?
"It ends up in the jazz department because it's instrumental music," barnstorming keyboard wizard John Medeski says in a telephone interview from Woodstock, N.Y. "But is Kenny G jazz? Good God, help us. You can say it's about the instrumentation: jazz is instrumental music with horns, some harmonic instrument, drums and bass. But where does that put Cecil Taylor, or Albert Ayler? It's so personal, what these things mean. Or is jazz a spirit? Is jazz a process?"
The answers to these questions won't become any clearer during MMW's show tonight at Mass MoCA's Hunter Center. But what is likely to come to the fore from this innovating combo -- composed of Medeski, bassist Chris Wood and drummer Billy Martin -- is its distinctive fusion of various jazz forms, funk, rock, and contemporary avant-garde.
"The name we've landed on between us for our music is ‘homeless music.' We don't really fit in. It's our music. It's MMW music," Medeski says.
One of the ironies of MMW's unlikely success over 18 years of recording and touring is the extent to which the group has become identified with the jam band scene, though it sounds virtually nothing like Phish, moe., The Disco Biscuits, Umphrey's McGee, or any of the other leading bands in that loosely defined genre. In fact, the band's penchant for open improvisation and experimentation has as much to do with the Downtown jazz scene in New York. (Just last year it recorded an album of John Zorn material.)
Its taper-friendly policy, regular bookings at summer rock festivals, and questing spirit put it in line with the musical tastes of the hardcore concertgoer as well as the bohemian aesthete, and so MMW has managed to put its feet in different corners of the music business without getting hemmed into any of them.
"These people are looking for that cathartic experience you get when the music is really wide open and anything can happen," he says of MMW's jamband fans. "The thing about a lot of those jam bands is there is some point in the set where they provide that. We try to do it the whole time."
For a lot of bands who thrive on constant touring and nightly improvisation, their studio work can become a sort of side project performed in a break between tours, absorbed by fans and then dismissed in favor of the next batch of live recordings. MMW, though, has put great care into creating carefully conceived albums. Whether it's the shape-shifting jazz of 1993's "It's a Jungle in Here" or the breakbeat-infused electronics of the 2000 album "The Dropper," their records have achieved artistic unity and individual staying power.
This is a direct outgrowth of the ready availability of MMW live recordings, Medeski explains. Due to the band's open taping policy, hundreds of legally recorded, relatively high-quality audience recordings are plentiful on online fan trading forums such as bt.etree.org.
"If you want to hear what we sound like live, you just go online and you can get just about every show we've every played, free. [Albums] are another creative outlet for us and we need to treat it like that. These are works. Each one is a chance for us to delve deeper into who we are. Each recording is a chance for us to go into the studio and create together in a different way."
Even in that context, MMW's recent studio output stands out. In February 2008, the band began an ambitious and innovative cycle of composition, touring and recording it dubbed the Radiolarian Series. (Named after, according to a press release, "a type of single-celled organisms with dazzlingly intricate exoskeletons.") First, the three men locked themselves in a room for three to five days of group composition. Then they hit the road for a short tour with shows composed almost wholly of the new material. Finally, they went straight from the road to the studio and cut an album. Then they repeated the process. Twice.
The result is "Radiolarians I," "II" and "III," released over the course of the past year. (The three albums are collected together, augmented by a re-mix CD and live DVD, for a box set to be released this month.)
Medeski says the process was concocted as a way to keep the band creatively "fed."
"After 18 years together, it's easy to slip into habits and become a caricature of yourself. [The Radiolarian Series] gave us the opportunity to try a lot of stuff out and to allow the tunes to go in all the different directions that we could before we recorded them. We were able to play it live and have a completely naive approach to the songs every night."
From the stinging electric bassline and kitchen-sink clatter of percussion in "Flat Tire," kicking off "Radiolarians II," to the Latin-flavored acoustic workout "Jeane's Scene" on "Radiolarians III," the albums are united in concept but range across a breathtaking span of styles and moods within the vast jungle that is "MMW music." In the process, the band's live and studio worlds were melded together into something that isn't quite either.
"It definitely was not a business move. This was a creative move for us to keep ourselves inspired. We know that what we thrive on is freshness," Medeski says. "It's not about this song or that song. It's about creating a certain vibration. We want to get to a certain place and create a certain energy and create a certain vibration when we play live. The way we do that is by feeling inspired."
Who: Medeski, Martin & Wood
When: Tonight, 8
Where: Mass MoCA, Hunter Center, 87 Marshall St., North Adams
How: (413) 662-2111; www.massmoca.org; at the box office.