Photos by Mitch Taylor // Concentrated Images
Words by Victoria Pittarelli
Until 2018, it had been a few long years since anyone had seen the four names Medeski Scofield Martin & Wood appear on a bill. Total solar eclipses come around more frequently than this lineup. When it happens, I implore you, stop whatever it is you’re doing and make arrangements to attend. Drop everything…because it means four of the most celebrated jazz legends of all time will share the stage, and I’m not just tossing the word “legends” around. This weekend at the Ogden Theater was the musical solar eclipse that Denver had been waiting for.
This four piece first began playing together in 1998, some seven years after the formation of Medeski Martin & Wood. The weekend doubled as a celebration of the 20th anniversary of their first release as a group, Scofield’s album A Go Go. Since then, they’ve released three more albums: Out Louder (2006), In Case The World Changes Its Mind (2011), and the most recent Juice, released in 2014.
Friday night’s opener was the first track off of Juice, “Sham Time,” and provided quirky and upbeat beginnings. Scofield (who I shall henceforth refer to as Sco) got right to business with his groovy interludes and well-known tasty guitar tones on the Ibanez he’s been playing for over twenty years now. Chris Wood’s instrument of choice was his Hofner Bass, a 4 string hollow body that gained celebrity status via Paul McCartney in the ‘60s, and one he’d pick up many more times throughout course of the evening. With those two instruments combined, played by the masters themselves, the resulting sound was flawlessly warm. Only one tune in, and we were already getting into that boundless soundscape territory that the group is known for.
Next up was “A Go Go,” a Sco heavy groove, and the title track off the group’s 1998 release. This song is what starts playing in my head whenever I think of them– it’s got that classic, sneaky Medeski organ sound, those slow building and highly technical Sco riffs, the unassuming and far from flamboyant stylings of my favorite drummer of all time, Billy Martin, and the perfectly on time and tasteful upright bass lines from Chris Wood. Billy Martin has the deepest, most fluid pocket of any drummer I’ve ever seen, but without any hints of rigidity. He’s sensitive and reactive to what’s going on around him, but in such a subtle way. That’s his magic. “A Go Go” is the kind of song, especially when heard live, that’ll make you tilt your head back, close your eyes, and know there’s no better place you could be than right where you are… at least, that’s what happened to me.
The band then broke into their first cover of the evening, “Light My Fire.” They made this Doors tune wholly their own, taking their respective solos way off into the great beyond, as they tend to do. The back and forth between Medeski and Sco was outrageously complex, while Billy and Chris kept the song grounded behind them. This particular tune led me to wonder if Sco’s first thought every morning when he wakes up is “Yep, another day and I’m still the man.” He’s so much the man, I don’t know how else to put it. After all, he played with Miles Davis, (and you know Miles knew Sco was cool), but Sco has this overtly humble air about him, so I imagine he doesn’t think that way.
“Chicken Dog” was up next, another track off A Go Go, and showcased Billy and Chris’ propensity towards playing with gadgets. Chris, on the upright bass, used this antenna-like rod in one hand, and a bow in the other, to create that weird oscillating frequency that a theremin produces. Billy pulled out his assortment of metal knick knacks, stood up, and held them in front of his mic to explore the weird interplay between them. They’re well known for this innovative and exploratory behavior in their trio performances, particularly Billy.
After “Tubes,” the vibe took a turn from “out there” to familiar and feel-good, with the beginning of “Juicy Lucy,” their playful and surf rock-y take on the 1960’s song “Louie Louie.” They closed out the set with “Helium,” during which I was reminded of the many ways Medeski might surprise you. I looked up at one point during this song and he was leaning on his Hammond with his left elbow, chillin’, almost like he was just an innocent onlooker from side stage. With not so much as a quick glance down, his right hand was swirling all over the organ so fast it was merely a blur. There’s no player quite like John Medeski.
I took set break to look around and really try and grasp what type of audience had turned up for the occasion. What I gathered is that “music nerds” come in all shapes and sizes, so to speak, and many of them were at the Ogden Theater for the evening. Throw a rock and you’d hit a nerd, or ya know…don’t. But in all seriousness, if you’re at a show like that, you’ve at least got a little bit of music nerd in you, or you were dragged in there by someone who does. You just know deep down that everyone in the room has an appreciation for what I’m going to call gourmet music. Fast food music for the masses is what comes out of most radio stations and televisions these days. Medeski Scofield Martin & Wood is fucking gourmet.
To everyone’s delight, the fabulous foursome joined the stage for the commence of Set Two, with “Chank.” Overall, Set One was pretty light hearted and friendly, but if you know MMW, you know that change is gonna come. Eventually it’s bound to get dark, and something about “Chank” told me it was coming. “Tube” gave way to “Boozer,” also off A Go Go, and then the darkness began.
“Deadzy” starts out with a very formidable organ line from Medeski, which kind of makes you feel like you’re being led to your doom. It’s slow, it’s out there, it’s spooky. Songs like these, if you’ve acquired the taste for them, are the perfect time to get lost in your own thoughts, like a Dead Head gets lost during “Space.” I found my mind wandering to Medeski’s trio side project DRKWAV, with Adam Deitch and Skerik. That project hits on the kind of scary, psychedelic-trance side of things. And then I thought about the potential exact opposite of those sounds, the Medeski Martin & Wood Kid’s album “Let’s Go Everywhere.” There’s so much variety that falls into these guys’ wheelhouse. They’re capable of taking you down so many different paths, musically, and each path with just as much expertise as the one before, no matter how different.
After “Deadzy,” it was time to come back into the light, and a cover of Ray Charles’ “What’d I Say” was a fantastic way to do so. Sco and Medeski took the lead on this track, creating a beautiful and happy environment for all to enjoy with swirling Hammond B3 sounds and sing-songy guitar riffs. Afterwards, for the third cover of the evening, the band began a dub heavy, playful version of “Sunshine Of Your Love.” It was during this tune that Medeski busted out his melodica for the first time, and the guys seemed to thoroughly enjoy playing around with the Cream original.
The final song of the set was “Hottentot,” and an opportunity for the group to round off the set with that classic sound they created together back in 1998. Sco peeled in and out of the song with his lines at the forefront. Billy and Chris made some experimental sounds with what looked to be just a textured sheet of metal. As the show neared the end, one thing in particular stood out to me as I continued to reflect on what I’d just witnessed. These four men are so unbelievably in tune with one another, it’s almost conceivable that they wouldn’t need to rehearse. You know they do, just because that’s what pros do. But it makes you wonder, do they even need to? The degree of musical empathy and understanding between these guys is something you just can’t not see when you watch them. It’s borderline telepathic, honestly. They listen and react to one another like true jazz musicians, with the perfect balance of humility, skill, and expertise, and that, to me, is what makes them such a powerful group to watch.
“Tootie Ma Is A Big Fine Thing” was their encore choice for the evening, a song Preservation Hall Jazz Band did with Tom Waits, and a song that encompasses some serious New Orleans spirit. What Waits accomplishes with his eclectic vocal stylings, MSMW manages to capture without any vocals at all. The crowd thoroughly loved it, as if they really had a choice but to. I originally only planned on attending Friday, but after such a tremendous evening of music… I took my own advice and dropped everything.