Medeski, Martin & Wood is a boundary-charging trio that seems as comfortable when it’s probing into the more abstract realms of jazz at the Blue Note club in New York as it is when churning out rump-shaking grooves at a summertime jam-band festival.
The trio is also an unusually flexible rhythm section. This year alone, it released album-length collaborations with two different guitarists: rock experimentalist Nels Cline (whose main gig is with Wilco) and fusion icon John Scofield.
The former is a challenging, sometimes abrasive exercise in free improvisation. The latter is a bubbly and swinging tour of African-derived grooves that pretty much compels an enthusiastic listener to dance along.
And, perhaps paradoxically, it’s the jazz legend who inspires keyboardist John Medeski, bassist Chris Wood, and drummer Billy Martin to rein it in a bit and focus on more straightforward song structures.
“You can hear MMW in there, but you can also hear how Scofield sort of influenced the material,” Martin says of the collaboration, speaking by phone. “I would say in general it’s easy, it’s fun, it’s more tune-oriented. It has almost an easy-listening thing that I would say is kind of fun to get into.”
“Juice,” the third studio album collaboratively credited to Medeski, Scofield, Martin & Wood, was released in September. It continues a partnership that dates to 1997, when elder statesman Scofield drafted the young combo to back him on “A Go Go.” A collaboration with equal billing for the trio and the guitarist followed in 2006, and a live record came along in 2011. The quartet plays House of Blues on Sunday.
Scofield, one of the most influential jazz guitarists of the past several decades, studied at Berklee College of Music and cut his teeth in the fusion scene of the 1970s, playing with groups including one fronted by Billy Cobham and George Duke.
“I was never a jazz purist — I started out when fusion was a big thing,” Scofield says. “So I was immediately labeled a traitor right from the beginning, even though I love mainstream jazz a lot.”
“Juice” shows a surprising influence from 1960s rock, with a dubbed-out reinvention of Cream’s “Sunshine of Your Love” complementing more straight-ahead takes on the Doors’ “Light My Fire” and Bob Dylan’s anthem “The Times They Are A-Changin’.” New song “Juicy Lucy” is anchored by a slight variation on the signature guitar riff from “Louie Louie.”
But most of “Juice” takes cues from music from, as Martin describes it, the African diaspora. “Medeski and I had been holding onto this idea for years for a thematic record, sort of a bossa and boogaloo record,” Martin says. “When we got into the studio we had a little bit of an idea, and saw this’ll obviously be rhythmic based music, [influenced by] Afro-Cuban, boogalo, Bossa nova rhythms.” These influences are heard readily in tunes like “North London,” “Louis the Shoplifter,” and “Stovetop.” Each of the four players composed songs for the record.
Scofield says he can’t lean on his bag of guitar licks when playing in this group.
“They’re funky but they also play free; they’re real improvisers, but they love old-school funk like I do,” Scofield says. “They don’t wanna call it jazz, but that’s where it is coming from — that kind of intellectual improvisation is in their music and is essential to it. They want that, and it doesn’t work for them without that. But Billy doesn’t want to play swing. He’s playing all Brazilian and funk and other stuff, but he doesn’t go into the swing of traditional jazz. So in a way that’s great, because that kept them from ever sounding like [a straight-up jazz group].”
Martin cites the chemistry he and his cohorts experience when playing with Scofield, and the guitarist’s ability to bring out the lighter side of the trio’s sound while also blending into its usual practice of looking toward each musician to lead the way onstage at different times. “We always seem to gel into this rhythm section that can get behind a lead artist or morph into a band, depending on the personality,” Martin says. “Sco’ is one of these guys who can do both — he can step out and lead the situation, and then become part of the band —
Since “A Go Go,” Scofield has found himself embraced by the jam-band world, which had already claimed MMW — even though the latter group typically calls its far-out excursions “open improvisation” rather than the more rock-like term “jamming.”
“It’s been great,” Scofield says, “I love that my audience widened with that. That’s the record that put me out there in that world, but I also think my kind of sound just seems to work with that. I’ve been rocking my whole life, to a certain extent.”