Playbill

The jam-band concept has just about run its course. With Phish on hiatus and the mediocre Widespread Panic picking up the slack in arenas, few improv acts are worth catching anymore. Medeski, Martin and Wood, however, provide a rare exception. Perhaps it's because the trio doesn't adhere to a phony sense of eclecticism, switching from country to rock to whatever other fringe genre frat boys find fascinating. Perhaps it's because MMW focuses on a sound that's as groovy as it is repetitive.

Yes, MMW's works are often interchangeable, but let's not hold that against the New York outfit. Employing grooves centered around John Medeski's funky Hammond, the group's jazz foundation has been its saving grace. With bassist Chris Wood, rock-solid percussionist Billy Martin and the occasional deployment of scratch man DJ Logic, the band bridges the usual genres: funk, blue-eyed hip-hop and straight-ahead jazz. It's a sound we've all heard from populist acts like the Beastie Boys, but there's something a little more sincere about MMW's delivery.

These guys aren't out there modeling retro Pumas or wearing hip T-shirts, although they might be if they hadn't signed with the famed Blue Note label. Since inking a deal with the same company that was home to Art Blakey and Jimmy Smith, the guys have recorded some fairly tight studio efforts, including 1998's Combustication and last year's The Dropper. Each has shown an increased degree of innovation while retaining the patented Meters-meets-the-MGs funk. To appreciate MMW's talents, it's best to catch the trio live. On stage, there's an undeniable chemistry that allows the threesome to transcend the jam-band label and assume its own identity, free of any gimmicks. Sure, they attract the same tape recorder-wielding, chemically enhanced crowd that flocks to Phish shows (not to mention Phish guitarist Trey Anastasio, who's been known to sit in with MMW), but despite their free-spirited following, this is a jazz act with few pretensions and even fewer flaws.

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Mike Emery