- Chris Wood, John Medeski, and Billy Martin at Levon Helm Studio in Woodstock.
It’s a sunny Sunday afternoon and the members of jam-band festival favorites Medeski Martin & Wood are wholly consumed, blissfully experimenting in the musical laboratory that is the stage. In fact, by the way he’s darting between the Hammond organ and the full- and toy-size pianos taking up his corner, egg-headed John Medeski looks more like a technician you’d see posed next to the UNIVAC than the keyboardist in a jazz-funk trio. At the opposite end of the bandstand, drummer Billy Martin lays down the heavy fatback, stirring up a thick broth of second-line shuffle beats—spiced with extra cowbell—as he bounces madly on his stool. In the middle, gangly bassist Chris Wood nods his head in time as he tickles and saws at his tall instrument, holding the whole mess together with benign solemnity. The music is full of constant sonic surprises and rump-rolling, irresistibly addictive grooves, and the listeners are clearly getting off on it, stomping, spinning, running around, and throwing their hands in the air like, yep, they just don’t care.
Typically great MMW show, right? In many ways, yes. But while the band and its members formidable chops are the same, the audience is something altogether new for these well-seasoned players. This crowd is made up largely of children—mainly toddlers, actually. They’re here for one of the occasional Kids Rambles held at Levon Helm Studios in Woodstock, where, of course, parents are allowed, too. And the elders are definitely digging the music as well, dancing while holding their kids, sitting Indian-style on the floor in front of the band, or chatting with other moms and dads as their offspring run wild. Family fun, and with a totally unbeatable soundtrack.
“[The Kids Ramble] did end up being a lot of fun, but we were pretty nervous beforehand,” says Wood a few weeks later. Wait—nervous? A band that has been touring the globe for almost 20 years, collaborated with everyone from Phish to Living Color’s Vernon Reid to jazz great John Scofield, one that regularly headlines massive outdoor festivals and prestigious venues like Manhattan’s Beacon Theater? Nervous, in front of a roomful of tots and their sippy-cup-bearing, diaper bag-toting parents? If such a thing is possible, the trio sure didn’t look uneasy at the time.
“I guess we fooled ya,” says Wood with a laugh. “That was the first time we’d done anything like that, being put in front of a bunch of kids and being expected to entertain them. We weren’t sure if we’d have enough material to hold their attention, since kids have much shorter attention spans than adults. It went pretty well, but we still have a lot to learn.”
It’s safe to say, however, that the band will have a few more chances to develop its rapport with the wee ones as it continues to gig in support of it newest release, Let’s Go Everywhere, an album of children’s music on Woodstock’s family-oriented Little Monster label. Those familiar with MMW’s 12 previous albums may wonder just how the heck the band could make its predominantly instrumental, wildly experimental music palatable to little kids. Well, to start with the group brought in a slew of guest vocalists—Wood himself; Martin’s sons, Dakota and Sawyer; band friend Tim Ingham, who delivers a puckish oratory on the cheeky “Pirates Don’t Take Baths”; the mysterious Marvin Pontiac (aka Lounge Lizards leader and movie actor John Lurie); and Wood’s daughter, Nissa, who lights up the intro to “All Around the Kitchen,” a track that also appears on High Meadow Songs (Independent), a benefit compilation for the local High Meadow Arts educational organization. But despite the all-ages appeal of Let’s Go Everywhere, the record never lapses into the pandering pablum of Barney and Baby Bop. “You don’t have to play down to kids,” Wood maintains. “They love the darker, more complex stuff more than you might think.” Indeed: The way the little Ramblers reacted to the disorienting, stop-start arrangement of “Where’s the Music?” clearly bears this out. But the record’s updated romp through “Hickory Dickory Dock” still seems a far cry from the band’s avant-garde beginnings.
MMW emerged in the early 1990s from the cutting-edge crucible of New York’s intersecting experimental and jazz scenes, whose dominant hub has long been downtown club the Knitting Factory. A Florida native and current Catskills resident, Medeski had played with vocalist Mark Murphy, late Hudson Valley saxophonist Dewey Redman, and late bass legend Jaco Pastorious, and had studied in Boston under arranger George Russell and Miles Davis bassist Dave Holland. Hailing from Boulder, Colorado, Wood also moved to Boston to study with Holland (the two are now fellow Saugerties residents) and percussionist Bob Moses, and later performed with saxophonist Ned Rothenberg. Moses was also the mentor of Martin, the son of a classical violinist and a Radio City Rockette, who grew up in New Jersey (where he still lives) and had worked with artists ranging from smooth jazz hitmaker Chuck Mangione to avant player Rothenberg. During the 1980s the threesome’s paths regularly crossed in the shifting lineups of bands like the Lounge Lizards and those of Moses, guitarists Marc Ribot and Elliot Sharp, and composer and saxophonist John Zorn, and it wasn’t long before the three musicians’ uncanny, shared chemistry dictated that they form their own band.