Medeski, Scofield, Martin, and Wood – Juice [TrackList follows] – Indirecto MWCD49, 63:25 [9/16/14] ***1/2:
(Chris Wood – bass; Billy Martin – caxixi, cuica, drums, guiro, talking drum; Pedrito Martínez – congas, guiro; John Medeski – keyboards; John Scofield – guitar)
When bassist Chris Wood (also one-half of the Wood Brothers), drummer Billy Martin and keyboardist John Medeski—better known to jazz and jam band fans as Medeski, Martin and Wood, or MMW—get together, it’s always magic time. Throw in occasional musical partner, guitarist John Scofield, and the auditory sorcery attains a higher elevation. Fresh licks, succulent riffs, ripe rhythms and tasty grooves saturate Juice, the third studio outing of Medeski, Scofield, Martin & Wood. The ten tracks, which total over an hour of sweet-sounding material, have a comparable mannerism to the foursome’s previous engagements. First there was Scofield’s 1998 release, A Go Go (Verve), which was a mostly brisk, sometimes edgy, jam-based groove fest. That album opened up further possibilities for the artists, and the outcome was Out Louder (2006, Indirecto). The subsequent tour resulted in the live effort, MSMW Live: In Case the World Changes Its Mind (Indirecto, 2011). The latest cross-collaborative album has some similarities to Out Louder. Like that excursion, Juice comprises band originals (this time, mainly credited to individual members rather than as group compositions) and some interesting covers. Juice was issued digitally, as well as on CD and on vinyl (which has two bonus tracks, taking two discs). This review refers to the CD version.
As with most MMW and MSMW records, groove is king. But the types of grooves keep things flowing with stimulating variations. Scofield’s “North London” is powered by Scofield’s tight chords and a propelling organ, while the rhythm team provides a mix of Latin boogaloo, upbeat Brazilian accents and ‘60s-fashioned funk-soul. Medeski and Scofield’s lyrical solos are grounded within the overall soulful course and have a naturalistic movement. Martin’s felonious sketch “Louis the Shoplifter” finds the keyboardist showcasing his acoustic piano skills. The piece progresses along with tricky but easy-going changes and a meticulously-melded salsa groove. While Scofield and Medeski furnish solos, Martin adds shifting rhythmic openings and some impelling snare work, while Wood delivers an irresistible bass line. Even more enjoyable is the group workout, “Juicy Lucy,” which appropriates the iconic riff from rock hit “Louie Louie.” While the quartet gels on the basic riff, a celebratory impression is reinforced by a persuasive Afro-Cuban vamp, bolstered by guest percussionist Pedrito Martínez. The crackling trade-off and interplay between Wood, Martin and Martínez is wickedly fun and so hip-shaking some may do a dance across the floorboards. A different, more cerebral evolution runs through Wood’s “Helium,” which contains angular harmonies, some unusual guitar arpeggios, and a kicking bass line which is heightened by Martin’s solidly locked-down beats.
The cover tunes are also enticing, although some function better than others. At the top of the list is Eddie Harris’ late ‘60s “Sham Time.” Willie Bobo memorably translated this with a Latin tinge on his 1968 LP, A New Dimension. That’s the version which MSMW most closely resemble on their finger-popping interpretation. Scofield adroitly takes the place of the saxes used by Harris and Bobo. Guitarist Steve Khan also did a guitar-led adaptation on his 1997 project, Got My Mental, but the MSMW rendering is far more jam-groove based. This is a jaunty cut with a joyful joie de vivre, invigorated by Medeski’s classic analog keyboard tone, Wood’s limber bass, Scofield’s blues-drenched licks and Martin’s rolling backbeat. The stand-out is a lengthy, dub-reggae departure of Cream’s “Sunshine of Your Love,” which has to be heard to be believed. The 11-minute track is creative and as nearly far from the original as it’s possible to get while retaining a recognizable root. Medeski and Scofield maneuver through a ghostly, blues-colored theme and Martin goes deep into the dub on his percolating bass. Medeski maintains the moist melody with one hand while he improvises with his other hand. Bonus production effects augment the arrangement with oodles of echo and reverb, and help make this modification of the Cream song an unforgettable psychedelic event.
The band enters a Bill Frisell-styled ambiance on a slow, nuanced take of Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin’.” While Medeski offers a gospel articulation via his organ, Scofield contributes a meditative solo, and Martin and Wood join together to supply a wonderful, metered backdrop accentuated by cymbals and brushes. However, there is less adventure on a straightforward reading of the Doors’ single, “Light My Fire.” It doesn’t seem totally undeveloped, but follows the Door’s song too much. Considering what might have been it shows promise but doesn’t sustain concentration: less a discovery and more toward just a comfortable vibe.
TrackList: Sham Time; North London; Louis the Shoplifter; Juicy Lucy; I Know You; Helium; Light My Fire; Sunshine of Your Love; Stovetop; The Times They Are A-Changin’.
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