It was MMW's grooves that initially drew me into their music in the mid-90s -- some of the most infectious of the time. At some point during their show at Higher Ground a friend reminded me of that with odd insight, "Billy Martin is one of the best hip-hop drummers I've ever seen." But for me these days, it's just the pure pleasure of seeing the way this trio communicates together onstage. And over the two set show, they hit a higher level of improvisational communication several times, while giving just about everybody in attendance a taste of all their different flavors.
Probably the biggest criticism I've heard about MMW live could also be perceived as one of their biggest strengths: you never know what to expect. Over the years I've heard the disappointment from both sides who either felt a show was to the extremes of being too groove-friendly or too formless and free. It's exciting to go into a show where you can only expect the unexpected, and that's MMW's uncompromising nature of playing music for the moment. With that said, Higher Ground was one of the most balanced shows I've ever seen MMW play.
Throughout the night the band covered so much sound and style: John Medeski played everything from piano, distorted organs, melodica, and synthesizers that sounded like spaceships taking flight; Chris Wood jumped between his three distinctly toned basses -- the double-bass upright, the Fender P-bass, and his-McCartney-made-famous Hofner; And Billy Martin played his kit as well as his wide array of shakers, clankers, and chimes. While the sound went everywhere from purely organic acoustics to the sound of aliens invading, the styles moved just as much. They play some straight waltzes, gritty blues and rock, swinging bebop and some stuff so funky you could smell it from a block away. And they also played a lot of free, abstract music where structure would become increasingly elusive. It was in these free moments of playing that they conjured up the most intensity and interesting music of the evening.
But with all the sound and stylistic diversity throughout the two set show, the depth of MMW is not about how much ground they can cover (and how well they can do it), but how well they listen to each other. There were several times throughout the night where you could hear the rapid fire of ideas being thrown across the stage and when something sparked, it really sparked. And at the same time, they demonstrated amazing patience and allowance with one another. There was nothing but music making happening on that stage and you could see the real-time reactions, the mistakes, the hiccups and the risk-taking like it was second nature.
It's a pure joy to see all go down and see it work, and not work, with so much concentration and freedom. And to see how much they stumble along the way in allowing each other ample space to create. "Allowing" was fresh in my mind from interviewing jazz drummer Matt Wilson two nights before this show, where he kept mentioning that concept as the key to his quartet's best moments. That concept couldn't ring more true for MMW, a band that's been making music together for approximately 18 years. Allowing is part of their language, and at Higher Ground it was done with passion and conviction. It makes the details of when and what they played -- even though their compositions are more than worthy of merit -- less important as it is just seeing them in a room playing music together.