Since they first connected 17 years ago in New York’s downtown scene, Medeski Scofield Martin & Wood’s collaborations have reveled in musical interplay.
Keyboardist John Medeski, bassist Chris Wood, drummer Billy Martin and guitarist John Scofield embrace soul, bebop, funk, R&B, DJ culture and the avant garde. In other words, it’s dancing music. Whether that means wiggling in your seat or shaking it at the foot of the stage, when these four improvisational masters get together, your body is going to respond. That’s because their music is about responding, not just to one another, but to the audience and the present moment. There’s something alive about their music, and as a result, every show is completely unique and unpredictable.
When they started as a group, they were three: Medeski, Martin and Wood. They headlined music festivals and brought in people from around the country looking to boogie. John Scofield was on his own, strong and supple enough on the guitar to draw in music aficionados with his name alone. But they connected for Scofield’s recording of A Go Go back in 1997, and they have continued to come back together ever since.
“The chemistry was fairly instant and undeniable,” says Medeski, who plays keyboard. “We decided to collaborate a few years later on Out Louder, which spawned a live recording, In Case the World Changes Its Mind.”
A few years passed, but Medeski says they just missed playing together, so they reunited for Juice this past year.
“It really has a life of its own,” Medeski says.
This living, breathing quality is present in all their music, and is one of the reasons they’ve referred to their own sensibilities as “wide open”.
“By open,” says Medeski, “we’re referring to being willing to try anything and use absolutely anything that feels right musically without being controlled by preconceived ideas of good or bad, or being enslaved by any tradition.”
That openness extends to their influences as well. The band has drawn from jazz, gospel, blues, samba, hip-hop, salsa, classical, and the list goes on.
“There’s a willingness to receive from anywhere,” says Medeski, even dropping such influences as crickets and waterfalls along with the songs of humans throughout the world.
On their newest album, Juice, the group fulfills a long-time dream of doing a record of boogaloo and bossa nova music. When they started the album, the all brought in music that inspired them, and they played around with original songs and covers.
“What happened in the studio was a group collaboration of arranging the music,” says Wood, the bassist. “Having a stylistic theme made this record different. It gave us a direction even before we went in the studio.”
When they’ve recorded past albums live, the group has varying degrees of direction. Sometimes they write nothing down and songs just emerge from their instruments; other times they read from sheet music they’ve composed.
“Often we use written music,” says John Scofield, the guitarist, “but sometimes not. There are usually parts where we play rehearsed material, then either improvise on the form of the tune or maybe vamp and improvise on just a groove, or maybe ditch steady meter and key centers altogether and play abstractly.”
Improvising comes as second nature to these musicians. There’s an effortlessness about it that the audience can sense. Even though they are all masters of their instruments, the real key to jamming isn’t in the deftness of their fingers.
“The key is listening to each other,” says Scofield. “Since we all do that, most everything works and it’s a great joy to play together.”
Preceding their show at Westhampton Beach on December 6, the group is touring in Europe.
“Every night has been a new adventure musically,” says Billy Martin, who plays the drums. “We’re having a blast.”
This joy is palpable, and audiences respond by enjoying themselves to the fullest.
“The audience can pick up that something special is happening,” says Martin. “They feel a part of something that happens only that night. It’s what makes it a personal experience.”
Medeski, Scofield, Martin & Wood perform at the Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center, 76 Main St, Westhampton Beach, on December 6 at 8 p.m. Tickets start at $75. For more information, visit whbpac.org or call 631-288-1500.