Graded on a Curve: Medeski, Martin & Wood + Nels Cline, Woodstock Sessions, Vol. 2

It was through a two-night summer 2012 live stand at the NYC nightclub The Blue Note that Medeski, Martin & Wood inaugurated their performance association with the prolific guitarist Nels Cline. Those with only cursory knowledge of the participants’ musical productivity might view the match as an odd one, but their new live in the studio collaboration The Woodstock Sessions, Vol. 2 illuminates their ability to function as a cohesive unit and serves up a generous helping of forward thinking yet approachable 21st century jazz-rock.

Some surely consider keyboardist John Medeski, drummer Billy Martin, and bassist Chris Wood to be little more than purveyors of edgy groove-fusion for the jam-band scene while others will no doubt shortchange Nels Cline as basically just a member of Wilco. The reality is that both the guitarist and MMW have worked extensively in cahoots with a numerous and diverse roster of artists.

A look into their backgrounds will reveal Cline’s massive number of credits, a list that spans all the way back to Openhearted, the 1979 LP from Los Angeles-based multi-instrumentalist Vinny Golia. But if less productive in terms of sheer volume, MMW’s ties to the concepts of jazz-informed collaboration are ultimately just as strong.

This is mainly because they persist as a band in the truest sense of the word. Shaping up as a trio lacking a clearly defined leader, or maybe better said with three crack musicians constantly alternating the leadership role, MMW’s 20-plus years of activity has effectively been a long and fertile expression of collaborative equality. It’s a circumstance that allows them to engage in dialogue with additional players with relative ease and comfort.

On one hand, the easiest point of prior comparison for The Woodstock Sessions, Vol. 2 (the first volume comes courtesy of the Alan Evans Trio) is probably MMW’s enduring connection with John Scofield, the veteran guitarist known for his early recordings in the groups of Charles Mingus and Miles Davis along with many subsequent offerings under his own name (and naturally tons of collabs).

Though not oppositional in nature, Scofield and Cline do brandish styles that are tangibly quite different, with the latter guitarist’s employment of effects at times mildly reminiscent of Bill Frisell’s younger, wilder days, and partisans of the avant-garde that also happen to be on friendly terms with MMW should find this release much to their liking.

Those 2012 shows may have cemented MMW’s relationship with Cline, but it’s worth mentioning that the guitarist and Medeski both feature on Between the Times and the Tides, Lee Ranaldo’s first LP post-Sonic Youth’s hiatus/breakup, with the disc cut from January through July of 2011. Then came the Blue Note engagement, and it went so swimmingly they began looking for a way to appropriately continue their alliance.

If robust collaborators with compatible aesthetics, MMW’s strongest bond with Cline is perhaps a ceaseless desire for playing gigs. And so a live record was a logical choice, but The Woodstock Sessions uses that idea only as a platform. Captured last August 27th in front of a lottery-picked audience of 75 at Michael Birnbaum’s Applehead Studios in Woodstock NY, the initial result was two hours of music from two sets.

Applehead’s production/engineering team of Birnbaum, Chris Bittner, and Kevin Salem edited and mixed it all down to nine pieces totaling just a smidge over one hour in length, and while sticklers for accuracy in live documentation might find the post-performance surgery improper, I’ll add that The Woodstock Sessions’ agreeable aura derives from and admirably extends a sonic template undeniably related to the collab of electric-Miles and Teo Macero.

But don’t let’s jump too far ahead. The enticingly psychedelic environs of opener “Doors of Deception” set the stage for “Bonjour Beze,” a much lengthier number delving deep into multifaceted abstraction. Its atmosphere slowly builds in intensity until a sturdy drum line arrives and clears a path for a motherload of Medeski’s attractively woozy organ effects.

It eventually blossoms into a fruitful four-way conversation on the subject of a cerebral groove, and then promptly unravels into a sweet tangle of collective improvisation with Martin in particular giving his kit a very nice workout. After returning to a similar abstract vibe, “Bonjour Beze” is followed by the exceptional “Mezcal,” the song giving a solid power-boost by expertly leaning to the rock side of their musical equation.

The whole of “Mezcal” is palpably Fusion-like with a burning solo from Nels riding atop expansiveness that’s appealingly suggestive of prime-Mahavishnu Orchestra. Even better, it’s combined with a sense of scale that brings to mind the very best of later-period Minutemen, an unsurprising comparison given Nels’ extensive work in bands featuring ex-Minutemen bassist Mike Watt, namely The Black Gang and Banyan.

From there “Les Blank” unfolds as a tri-sectioned piece. An extended opening finds atmospherics engaging with funky bedrock that’s finally cleaved by an accelerated tempo. The mid-section delivers a fittingly tight exposé in unified scorch, with Wood’s fingering of the upright acoustic simply fantastic. Then a downshift and refocusing as another deep groove carries the track to its conclusion.

The first half of “Jade” is loaded with Nels dishing a la Hendrix or maybe more suitably Jeff Beck, though the space-rock meets ’70s R&B of its later portion is far funkier, a bit like if Josie-era Meters had trekked off to Germany to wax an album with Conny Plank. And together with parts of “Arm & Leg,” “Looters” is the most explicitly experimental cut here; the bowing of what I assume to be Wood’s bass produces a gorgeously thick sound, and much of the duration offers an almost post-rock soundscape.

In due time an earthy rockish heaviness does get established, and Cline launches from it with his finest and simultaneously most jam-band-fan-friendly playing on the entire record. “Conebranch” is the release’s other concise selection, with its fadeout highlighting The Woodstock Sessions’ editing process. And yet the work of Birnbaum, Bittner, and Salem hasn’t really softened the music’s performance reality. Far from it actually; the lengthy beginning of “Bonjour Beze” significantly amplifies its conception in front of an appreciative crowd in a welcoming room.

Like the majority of the session, “Arm & Leg” won’t sit still stylistically, though it does gradually shape up into an excellent showcase for Medeski’s expansive yet never noodlesome talents on various keyboards. And closer “Cinders” is plainly based upon the title track from Miles’ In a Silent Way; given this set’s overall thrust, that’s fitting.

It never slips into overt melodiousness but drifts along like a champ while completing its denouement, though I also can’t help detecting in “Cinders’” opening moments just a sliver of Peter Green’s exquisite tone as found on Fleetwood Mac’s “Albatross.” This correlation is almost certainly the byproduct of my own personal experience and not a deliberate one on Cline’s part, but nevertheless it only adds to The Woodstock Sessions’ considerable sum.

And the proceedings do travel into deeper weeds than MMW or Wilco (though the avant-reared Cline has recorded a ton of material that equals or bests this disc in purely “out” terms), but open-minded fans from both camps will likely enjoy much of what’s here, as should lovers of Miles’ plugged-in period, top-flight Mahavishnu, and even early-‘70s King Crimson.

Faced with the prospect of potentially routine in-studio team-up or a standard slice of live album vérité, these four gents instead bypassed those long-established norms and took a trip on a surprisingly rewarding alternate trail. The Woodstock Sessions requires investment from the listener, but the rewards are many, and folks will be absorbing them for years to come.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A- 

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