As far as I am concerned any time John Medeski‚ Billy Martin and Chris Wood take the stage‚ it's a big deal. When they perform with a musician like Nels Cline‚ I'm going to do anything I can to get in the room.
Luckily I didn't have to do anything too unspeakable to make it to Manhattan's Blue Note last Wednesday to see this dream collaboration‚ the first between Nels and MMW.
It certainly didn't sound like the first time the guitar wizard had played with the trio‚ but that shouldn't really surprise anyone -- these four guys are all master improvisers and Nels is a musical chameleon. If you're familiar with his work with Wilco‚ you've heard Nels handle everything from tender Tweedy ballads to leading Sonic Youth-esque freakouts. His solo career has a similar duality to it. He's got one foot in the jazz world and the other is somewhere much noisier.
Of course MMW are fully capable of getting 'out there' but‚ other than some spacey segues‚ they stayed pretty grounded in the groove on this particular night. This left room for Nels to really tear it up.
There was no safety net for this set. Just a whole lot of trust and respect flowing in both directions.
The first tune was an extended improv featuring Chris on upright bass (the only time he played acoustic all set) and Billy laying into a choppy‚ snaking beat. They found the groove early and often with Nels deliver his primal‚ attacking guitar lines over the top.
Next up was a really inspired take on Hendrix's "Third Stone from the Sun." This seemed appropriate since I hear a lot of Jimi in Nels' playing. It's not that they really sound that alike but that they both seem to play like they just stepped off a spaceship. I can't say enough good things for Nels' use of effects. When he wasn't rocking back and forth on his heels‚ he was tap dancing on his pedals. Between him and Medeski‚ who can also use effects to sound extraterrestrial‚ there was a lot of strangely fantastic sounds coming from the tiny stage on "Third Stone" and throughout the whole set.
"Partido Alto" was up next‚ a MMW tune that most fans would recognize‚ even if they didn't know the name. This was real vintage MMW and reminded me of some of the amazing guests spots Marc Ribot had played with them over the years (he would be the guest the next night as well).
The final song (jam?) of the night started out slow but Billy quickly picked it up with a shuffling New Orleans second line-type groove. This one even got the staff dancing. Nels was just as comfortable playing over the funk as he was earlier with the fast-paced "Third Stone."
It was a really special night and I can only hope they'll make it happen again. Just seeing MMW share the stage with the towering guitar player (seriously‚ Nels must be like 6'10") brought a smile to my face. The music that followed kept it going all night.
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