REVIEW: Medeski, Martin and Wood (with guest vocalist Jamie Cullum) at the 2015 Cheltenham Festival

John Medeski - on melodica -  at the 2015 Cheltenham Jazz Festival
Photo copyright: John Watson / jazzcamera.co.uk

Medeski, Martin and Wood 
(Cheltenham Jazz Festival, 3rd May 2015. Review by Dr Luke Davidson)

Schoenberg would have been proud. The Viennese master, who always hoped his new brand of atonality would become the music of the future, might have sat in the Cheltenham Festival’s Big Top, and watched with fascination the way the audience responded to a trio, whose musical roots might be said to reach back to the speakeasys of Harlem and the Baptist churches of the American south, by lapping up the music of a band that segued so seamlessly between the righteous soul of Jimmy Smith, the funky chops of Jimmy McGriff and the other-worldly dissonance of the Viennese school.


Jamie Cullum guesting with Medeski, Martin and Wood
Cheltenham Jazz Festival 2015
Photo copyright John Watson / jazzcamera.co.uk . All Rights Reserved


Jamie Cullum - who guested with his usual panache and energy on Caravan, Nature Boy and Suspicious Minds - introduced the gig with expressions of breathless admiration for Medeski, Martin and Wood, speaking of their innovation and influence within the music world. As genre-busters, MMW’s music incorporates and twists many different strands from the last forty - indeed hundred - years; boogie-woogie, free-jazz, hard rock, jazz-funk, hip-hop, to name a few. To MMW fans, this is integral to their appeal, and what was great about the gig was that it all felt right as a live experience. All of it is really anchored by Chris Wood’s driving bass riffs, which allow a variety of compelling drum patterns and melodic extravagance to circulate around and above. Listening yesterday, I had to wonder why the organ plays so little part in jazz music in the UK? After all, this is a country with a thousand churches and a thousand organs that huff on a Sunday. It’s not as if it has never featured in our national music. And last night, the audience were served with a breathtaking, virtuosic display on what the instrument can do - admittedly with a distortion pedal - when in the hands of John Medeski. Come out, you guys!

Another distinct pleasure of the night was something that is distinctive to their sound: the blend of great keyboards. Under Medeski’s fingers, classic keyboards maintain their value and their identity. The gig began with Medeski blasting a blistering boogie-woogie (with atonal runs) on the grand piano - just to show he could? - before alternating between the hammond, the Wurlitzer and the mellotron. In doing so, he exploited all the resources of the instruments, in the overdrive growl necessary for Hendrix’s Crossfire Traffic, to the more experimental, atmospheric moments that deployed the mellotron’s string sounds and bendy attack. They never sound like pastiche - they serve the music. One of the highlights of the gig was when Medeski moved on to his melodica (image above), which is not an instrument much seen in downtown Cheltenham I hazard, and, with the rest of the band, took the gig into a more acoustic, intimate sound with Wood on upright bass and Billy Martin on tambourine.

Billy Martin. Cheltenham Jazz Festival 2015 Photo copyright John Watson / jazzcamera.co.uk

So, a treat and a triumph for the Festival’s programmers, who are delivering an extraordinary range of music offerings this year. Fans can hear Wood playing in his own band in May and June - if they are prepared to zip over to Holland or Germany.

LINKS: Interview with Cheltenham Festival Director Ian George
CD Review: Billy Martin's Wicked Knee
CD Review: John Medeski: A Different Time

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