Let’s be honest here. Liking jazz in the 1990s was not cool. To everyone outside its musician and fan orbit — jazz was a ‘dead’ form of creativity that had smelled funny for many years (thanks Frank Zappa) and its fanbase was viewed a sniveling group of nerds combing garage sales with no life and questionable social skills (thanks Ghost World). But if you were to zoom in to a particular neighborhood of New York City – let’s say the Lower East Side – and isolate the outside world: the loft and gallery jazz scene that originated in the first half of the century was very much still burgeoning, albeit with many new faces hanging. Venues such as The Knitting Factory (with Soul Coughing’s M. Doughty working the front door) and CBGB’s Gallery 313 became staples among adventurous musicians still living or traveling to New York City to play “jazz” with (air quotes).
When I say “jazz” with (air quotes) let’s be even more frank here – “jazz” had changed a lot. Lower East Side Patron Saint John Zorn had multiple groups (including all members of Medeski, Martin and Wood) spanning many forms of “jazz” – his Naked City project sounded like a cartoon soundtrack music meets thrash metal on the first album and had morphed into some bastardized version of minimalist metal drone by the last. Zorn also had his wildly exotic quartet Masada which he labeled “Radical Jewish Culture” that could easily adapt into various other expanded and shrunken settings like the Masada String Trio, Bar Kokhba, and Electric Masada. There was also future HBO surrealist comedian John Lurie and his band The Lounge Lizards. A group that found its origin in the waning days of the classic era of jazz and the beginning of the punk and no-wave era of New York’s Lower East Side no-man’s land. With a revolving door of musicians that included his brother Evan among many of New York’s freaky “jazz” elite: Arto Lindsay, Marc Ribot, Steven Bernstein … etc. Such a crowd of talent that Lurie estimates 80 or more musicians held court in the group during its heyday which would make even Sun Ra and his Arkestra blush.
Two early 90s members of The Lounge Lizards included organist/pianist John Medeski and percussionist/drummer Billy Martin. Medeski’s pedigree found him studying piano at Boston’s famed New England Conservatory in the 1980s while also performing with heady stalwarts Dewey Redman and Billy Higgins. Martin was no slouch himself – if anything very much the complete opposite having become a student of drummer Ra-Kalam Bob Moses while also performing with Chuck Mangione’s touring group and a steady fixture in New York’s Brazilian music scene. The third member of the lawyer firm-esqe named trio was bassist Chris Wood who orbited Lurie’s world though is not counted as one of the 80+ members of the Lounge Lizards (if you prove me wrong I will break a copy Voice of Chunk over my head for spreading false information) though played on other albums with Zorn and was also a student of Ra-Kalam.
See what I’m getting at here? “Jazz” with (air quotes) wasn’t “dead” by any means as the Medeski, Martin & Wood origin story reads like a who’s-who of classic jazz era album note credits. The band’s 1991 live debut was even held at the infamous Village Gate where their early sound was more traditional with an acoustic piano-upright bass-drums configuration. Covers of Duke Ellington’s “Caravan”, Coltrane’s “Syeeda’s Song Flute” and Monk’s “Bemsha Swing” found themselves tucked in with new tongue-in-cheek originals – “Hermeto’s Daydream” and “Uncle Chubb”. The group quickly became a staple of the downtown scene and they released two well respected albums, Notes from the Underground and It’s a Jungle in Here – the latter on Rykodisc’s Gramavision imprint which if you haven’t peaked at the catalog, do yourself a favor because there is gold hidden in those sea foam green CD cases.
By 1994 the group became further influenced by the environment surrounding them including the classic era of hip-hop whose funk and groove samples soundtracked New York City streets and airwaves. Medeski’s acoustic piano was soon accompanied by organ, wurlitzer and clavinet which gave the group’s sound an unreal electric vibe that was one part Joe Meek’s electronic experiments to two parts Herbie’s Headhunters and Miles’ electric groups. Wood’s acoustic bass notes became deeper and funkier while holding the group to their earthy acoustic origins. Martin’s arsenal of percussion became more exotic and homemade — adding a touch of rhythm from unseen lands. As a result in 1995 they released their third album Friday Afternoon in the Universe (its title inspired by the opening line of Keroauc’s Old Angel Midnight) to inquisitive ears. Indie rag Trouser Press exclaimed Friday Afternoon sounded like “… pure improvisation, instantaneous explorations building into massive, irresistible grooves”. Can a “jazz” band find success in the college press and touring circuit?
Medeski, Martin & Wood’s (née MMW) new sound made it easier to tour as the group didn’t necessitate an acoustic piano to be present at the venue allowing them to be able to gig at rock clubs and not just stuffy jazz rooms. They also began to tour by RV making their overhead even less so they could stay on the road longer to spread their sound across the land like their second (or third) patron saint, Kerouac. (Lurie, Zorn and Kerouac does have a ring to it after all). I like to affectionately call it: JAZZ ECONO. I asked (I didn’t) Mike Watt if he approved of this appropriated punk rock term and his spiel was pure thumbs up.
Flash forward to deep into the year 1995: MMW shared the stage with Vermont jam band Phish — not once but three times across multiple venues. Tapes from October 14 and 17, 1995 became dorm room late-night bong wish tape trading fodder catapulting the trio into a new level of fandom. “Jazz” does smell funny and that smell is patchouli. MMW became synonymous with the jam band scene while Billy’s hand drawn band logo gracing the cover of Friday Afternoon found itself tucked behind the CD of every hippie’s car seat dwelling large case logic binder.
In 1996 the group followed up Friday Afternoon with an even more deeply heady and dank offering, Shack-man. MMW as a group decamped to a remote section of Hawaii to record the album (via solar power) in a literal plywood shack where they channeled the island’s native spirits, “The Nightmarchers”, and the funky New Orleans voodoo of The Meters, along with a sprinkle of Europe’s rave scene. The result was something akin to “soul-jazz, hip-hop, and post-punk world beat” as Allmusic’s Leo Stanley declared. He’s not wrong. The album was anchored by the rave-up “Bubblehouse” which felt like going to church on ecstasy. A true endurance test on trying not to freak out or explode into dance as you scream “Is There Anybody Here That Love My Jesus”??! I am not saying I haven’t done this myself but there was many nights in the late nineties and early 2000s where myself and friends followed the group up and down New York’s I-90 and the Mass Pike chasing that feeling.
Shack-man became the soundtrack to many people’s lives that year and beyond. It was a genre defining release that heads who were into jazz were excited about but also ears who were down with hip-hop and groove music. The album also marked the group’s last indie release as they found themselves connecting with their early influences via a series of albums on Blue Note once the label realized there was something going on in the downtown NYC scene that they could market — something that wasn’t all shronk but shronk with soul. Albums like 1998’s Combustication and 2000’s The Dropper built on the success of Shack-man albeit with a somewhat darker bend thanks to Scotty Hard’s (De La Soul, Wu-Tang Clan) immaculate production. They are beautifully dense and complicated albums that people are still trying to process two decades later.
All words said – I am writing this today as a mega fan of the group for over 25 years now, and as someone who has mentioned multiple times to friends at record labels that they should consider reissuing Friday Afternoon in the Universe and Shack-man due to a whole legion of new ears waiting to be tickled as jazz is finally cool again. Last fall at the Woodsist Fest in Upstate New York I watched a duo of Medeski & Martin with a guest griot player send the crowd to Saturn and beyond. When the last notes their set faded away into the ether – Woods’ Jeremy Earl and I both looked at each other and exclaimed “Jesus Christ!” In that moment we both had found love with our Jesus.
Reissues of both Friday Afternoon in the Universe and Shack-man are available now via Real Gone Music. | d norsen