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Afro-Cuban Beats Power Medeski & Friends' Juice

As fans of the jazz/funk trio Medeski Martin & Wood know, the band likes to improvise, a big reason why they're also a hit on the jam-band circuit. But dancing on the edge of a musical cliff isn't always as effortless as it may look, according to drummer Billy Martin.

"It could be a gut-wrenching experience!", he says. "It's all about the chemistry of the [players]. And when you're really into it, you don't know how it's going. There have been moments where I thought it really sucked."

And I may have thought it went terribly wrong, but then find out that the other guys or some of the audience may think it's the best thing ever!", he adds. "So who knows..."

Martin, keyboardist/pianist John Medeski, bassist Chris Wood, and frequent collaborator/guitarist John Scofield will get plenty of chances to put that theory to the test during their upcoming tour to promote the recent release of Juice (Indirecto Records).

Featuring ten tracks geared toward Afro-Cuban rhythms and styles, Juice is the trio's third studio disc with Scofield since 1998 (along with one live disc). It's the trio's most obvious embracing of those genres since their 1991 founding, stemming from a compilation CD that Martin put together for the other guys.

"We were originally talking about bossa novas and boogaloos, and it turned into this," the drummer says. "We each had some idea of a concept and brought in material and everyone threw in ideas and we just hashed it out. It's a blend of everyone's influence."

As to what Scofield adds to the mix musically (other than the obvious sound of the guitar), Martin praises his lyrical sense of playing and melody.

"He pulls us together in a certain sense when we play that definitely takes things to another dimension. And that's what makes this quartet a real band. He's the fourth member, not just a [guest]. And a perfect addition."

While various members (in various combinations) are credited with the songwriting, Martin gets sole credit for "Louis the Shoplifter." The title comes from a character in the William S. Burroughs novel The Junkie, which Martin was reading at the time.

"I had this very simple melody in my head, and was hearing a certain beat I liked to play in this Afro-Cuban kind of groove, so it came together pretty quickly," he says. "I sang the melody to Scofield and showed Medeski in the piano what I was hearing, and then they just took it further."

Some surprising inclusions on Juice are the three covers of well-worn classic-rock warhorses: the Doors' "Light My Fire"; Cream's "Sunshine of Your Love," which the quartet reworked into a reggae-dub number; Bob Dylan's "The Times They Are a-Changin'."

Initially, Martin said he was skeptical when each of the other three brought one of those tunes to the table, pleading "I had nothing to do with it!", but eventually came around once the quartet started working on them.

"I wasn't sold on the whole thing until we ran through them a couple of times," he recalls. "I don't like to do covers at all unless we can make them our own."

And while the Medeski Scofield Martin & Wood tour has no Houston date at this point, Martin does have fond memories of playing a club here "run by two women with a lot of punk rock energy," possibly describing Fitzgerald's. And at which the band would sleep in their RV stationed in the club's parking lot.

"I remember a mockingbird waking me up bright and early every morning and what a joy that was," Martin recalls, probably sarcastically. "Actually, it was probably when we were going to sleep. But that bird has such a profound effect on me!"

Juice is available now.

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