Medeski Scofield Martin and Wood's appearance at South Burlington's Higher Ground Ballroom was in a real sense‚ very classic. The quartet offered a lengthy two-set performance to a packed house that stayed largely intact‚ till the near two-am finish (then hung around for autographs). And it's little wonder. The band met‚ and exceeded‚ the crowd's obviously high expectations‚ without pandering to their worst instincts‚ or even a low common denominator...
... They freshened up a familiar approach for themselves and the fired-up patrons - notwithstanding a discernibly different sort of electricity in the air than a pure MMW show.
How rare it is for a band to rise to the level of expectation of its audience. Especially‚ when the band in question has set such high standards for itself for close to fifteen years. And how ironic was it that MMW were in the presence of a like-minded musician‚ twenty years their senior‚ who nevertheless mirrored their own evolution‚ in a very real way.
This tour with John Scofield is ostensibly designed to promote the early fall release of Out Louder‚ MMW's first high-profile release on their own record label‚ Indirecto. But it's also a natural progression for them to Scofield to collaborate again. The trio‚ slowly but surely‚ emerged from the ambient phase‚ capped by End of the World Party (not coincidentally their final work for the Blue Note label)‚ over the last year or so and‚ in concert‚ have been slipping‚ almost imperceptibly‚ back into a collective pocket that distinguished titles like Shackman‚ that gave MMW their underground cred back in the nineties.
That's when the trio first encountered Scofield and backed him up on A Go Go‚ for which there were repeated shouts for tunes from throughout the Higher Ground show (and from which "Hottentot" came‚ which capped this show just as effectively‚ as the new "Little Walter Rides Again" finished the first set). That's also when they forged their identity‚ once and for all‚ on their Blue Note debut Combustication. If this Vermont appearance is any indication‚ Medeski Martin and Wood are rediscovering the beauty of simplicity and accessibility.
Whether or not Scofield is the symbol of that epiphany is only slightly debatable‚ since as the second set went on‚ it wasn't only John Medeski who deferred to the guitarist. The early evening's concession to convention of solo tradeoffs‚ found the keyboardist carefully pondering Scofield's spotlights‚ as if to gauge how to respond. In contrast‚ as Chris Wood switched from Hofner to Fender‚ to standup acoustic bass‚ he and Scofield just shot constant streams of ideas to each other.
Scofield's interaction with drummer Billy Martin was much the same‚ an almost telepathic exchange‚ in which the two respective partners completed each other's ideas and elaborated upon them. "Hanuman" has been a staple of MMW shows for a while and‚ when the tune commenced‚ the foursome became a veritable juggernaut‚ the intensity of the ensemble playing ratcheted up to a whole new‚ higher level.
In marked contrast‚ the attention to form reached its logical conclusion with a beautiful rendition of the Beatles "Julia‚" immediately followed by Peter Tosh's "Legalize It‚" mirroring the sequence of the studio recording. It's important to note this nod to traditionalism came after some extended forays into melodic and rhythmic areas. It was led by Scofield's increasingly frenzied staccato‚ where the distinction between the two categories became increasingly blurred. Then again‚ when have jazz musicians not utilized the pop tunes of the day‚ as a major portion of their books?
You had to hope the uproarious recognition‚ of the venerable guitarist's absorption in the music‚ had no trace of condescension. The dynamic he's generated with Medeski Martin and Wood remains too natural a give-and-take‚ to be anything less than the work of musicians‚ all on equal footing. Yet John Scofield's presence seems to remind his slightly younger peers‚ that it's ok to play what's simple because it makes the complex stand out‚ in even greater relief. He's not teaching them anything they don't already know and from the gracious enthusiasm in his voice‚ as he repeatedly introduced the three to the packed house‚ he too acknowledges‚ how much he learns by playing with them.
Leaving the venue‚ an individual from Higher Ground management was overheard asking a regular patron "That was a great show‚ wasn't it?"
Yes…yes it was.