Medeski Martin & Wood are not sticklers about labels. For more than 20 years, keyboard player John Medeski, bassist Chris Wood, and drummer Billy Martin have coursed through the jazz world and jam-band environs with a funky, smart, and gritty sound all their own.
So when Wood ditched his upright bass for a plugged-in four-string on a few numbers during MMW’s “acoustic” show Friday at Jordan Hall, nobody was — or should have been — surprised; it’s best to simply trust in MMW.
As the intimate Jordan Hall show revealed, that trust isn’t backed by an elusive chemistry but rather by the concrete listening skills and lightning quick responses each of the trio brings to the percolating ideas.
Throughout the two-set performance, Medeski Martin & Wood seemed oblivious to an audience, each man completely absorbed in what the other two were doing. Still, the concert was generous in both breadth and depth, featuring some tunes that closed in on tradition and others that swung out to the fringes of experimentation.
Medeski sat between a grand piano and prepared upright, conjuring from that station an array of textures as diverse as those he coaxes from his electric setup. Standing center stage, Wood bent and stretched his tone using slides, bows, rods, and sheer physicality; midway through the first set as he banged and slapped his instrument for percussive accents, it became clear why Wood’s upright bass looks like a crime victim. Martin had the most toys, and as such was the most playful member of the trio, perhaps becoming the first musician to “play” a cluster of plastic coat hangers at the New England Conservatory (Martin also pointed out Medeski’s and Woods’s respective tenures as students at NEC).
While the improv-heavy show accentuated the trio’s call-and-response skills, the tune “Down on Me” featured crisp ensemble playing that brought the first set to a boil. MMW closed the first set by deconstructing “Suspicious Minds” into a romantic motif burnished with a rocking bass line.
“Doppler,” featured on MMW’s recently released “Free Magic,” opened the second set, showcasing the trio’s ability to swing like a classic bop outfit. The highlight of the second set was a stretch of exotic exploration featuring Medeski blowing a Slovakian shepherd horn, a bassoon-looking instrument that sounds like a woodwind with a reedy undercurrent, and Martin blending Afro-Cuban and Eastern percussion, all atop Wood’s spectral electric bass groove.