Last night Mr Wombat and I went to Camden's famous Jazz Cafe to see a gig by Medeski, Martin & Wood. Contrary to the sound of it, they are not a firm of solicitors who moonlight as jazz muso's. It was the first time I'd been to the Jazz Cafe, and I guess I was pretty excited about the whole concept – it looks a pretty neat building from the outside. On the whole though I'd have to say I was whelmed (i.e. not over or under).
The interior of the building reminded me of being in a classroom. It was very reminiscent of the front bar of the Mawson Lakes Tavern in fact, only with more blue neon lighting and more wankers with goatees. Actually no, that bit was about the same. Jazz crowds can be kind of funny – I will concede that it does give me the heebie jeebies when people stand there talking (read:shouting) to their mates, because if you want to hold a 2 hour conversation then possibly in a room full of loud music's not the ideal venue. Jazz crowds however can get very pernickety about people talking – it's almost like going to a formal classical gig, but set in a pub. You'll always get some people more serious than others, and who accordingly turn around and tell the noisier crowd elements to “SHHHHH!”. Jazz Cafe management made their stance on crowd noise clear by the presence of a large yellow banner on the central pillar inviting the onlookers to “STFU“. I get the point, but it didn't exactly foster a feeling of welcome.
I must admit, I hadn't heard a lot of MMW, but what I had heard I really dug, and I bought their album “Combustication”, which gets a fair bit of spin time in my CD player. I felt confident enough that they weren't going to suck though to go to the bother of paying £20 for a ticket. Initial signs weren't good.
They opened with a sort of full-throttle cacophony really – Medeski getting right carried away with pitch bending notes and jamming on distortion effects, accompanied by an almost indescernable succession of bass notes from Wood, and various arhythmic combos from Martin on drums. After about 2 minutes of that Paul and I looked at each other and the look in our eyes must clearly have been one of “Oh shit, are we going to be stuck listening to *this* all night ?”. I don't know whether it was in fact rehearsed, or that the 3 of them just got bored (or were clever enough to notice large parts of their audience heading that way), but they broke into a groove at that point and Paul relaxed, realising that I hadn't been yanking his chain when I described them as “musicians”.
If they were playing discrete tracks, then I couldn't detect them – essentially it was one long jam involving about 7 different music styles. At one stage they had what I thought was a very Chicago Blues sound, as well as a section of what could only honestly be described as “Fat Albert Music”. For the most part it was good rump-shakin' stuff.
Band chemistry was interesting – there wasn't that much interplay between the 3 of them, other than in a musical sense, and that tended to put across a pinch of ego. They didn't always seem so much a trio, as 3 individually quite capable musicians who were tolerating the other two but wanting to take the break in their direction. Medeski had about 4 keyboards, including a piano which was facing back of stage. I just can't get excited about looking at the back of a bloke's head all night; I don't care how good his sound is.
According to the notes I made on my phone, I apparently (in my beer-aided consciousness bubble) thought that Wood looked a bit like a Ryan Stiles figure who had probably been hassled a lot at school, Medeski looked a lot like Frasier would do if he was playing the piano and chewing a wasp simultaneously, and Martin looked like Danny Bonaducci on some sort of sponsored appearance – 10p for every drumbeat – and he was playing for his retirement.
They were certainly very good; they continuously found new grooves, then went out on weird experimental journeys, then snapped it back in again. However as far as jazz acts go they just seemed a little too wrapped up in themselves. A huge contrast for instance to Herbie Hancock's quartet at the Barbican last summer – who were in constant eye contact with each other and you could see them living off each other's feedback.
One of the other things that distracted me was the protracted passages where Martin would reach into an unseen goodie bag of weird home-made looking instruments and bring them out one after the other to add their distinct sound to the tapestry. It wound up sounding like the musical equivalent of a Jackson Pollock painting. Once again my notes reveal that I suspected Martin of being the first person in history to think of running a duck call through a wah pedal. So yes, that was… errm… interesting.
I'm tempted to buy their latest album just to see if there's any correspondence between it and what we heard, and they haven't lost any esteem on my part as to their musical talent. However I did find them disappointingly self indulgent, and had we not had plenty of beer to keep us ticking along and the odd surprise like a bloke next to us dropping to the floor and having a mild epileptic fit, I suspect by the end of the evening it would have been a lot more tiring than it was. Judging by the fact there was only one encore and even that seemed obligatory I suspect one or two of the other punters felt the same way as I did.
(How was that – too bitchy ??)