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Medeski, Martin and Wood: Evolving beyond labels

February 17, 2010 |  1:14 pm

When we last left the experimental jazz trio Medeski, Martin and Wood, they were deep in the throes of completing the "Radiolarians" project, a year-long endeavor beginning in 2008 that involved writing and performing new songs on the road, going into the studio at the tour's end, then releasing the results and starting the process over with a new set of songs.

It was an ambitious undertaking, and one that yielded three albums in a 12-month period. Such hard work deserves to be commemorated properly, and that came late last year with the sprawling, deliciously packaged "Radiolarians: The Evolutionary Set." 

A culmination of the band's efforts, the set includes all three albums on CD, a 180-gram double-vinyl selection of highlights from all three records, a live disc, a remix CD featuring particularly bent contributions from DJ Spooky and Mutamassik and a feature-length DVD documenting the entire process directed by drummer Billy Martin.

While certainly a sight to behold from a design perspective, taking in the set's full breadth of music makes an even greater impact. Full of the trio's trademark excursions into avant-jazz, funk and gospel that range from the spacey percussion freak-out of "Chasen vs Suribachi" to a wicked cover of "Satan, Your Kingdom Must Come Down," there's an intense devotion to exploration running throughout the collection that goes beyond what one might expect for a group that's too-often dismissed as part of the jam-band crowd.

Announced as one of the performers at this year's Bonnaroo festival (the band's fourth appearance), Medeski, Martin and Wood clearly doesn't fight its somewhat accidental fan base. But Martin still bristled against the label in our 2008 interview. "It's hard to explain . . . I don’t even like the name, you know," he said. "I grew up in like the '70s with Bob Marley and Stevie Wonder and ‘Jammin’,' and that term being so cool. But there’s also a stronger improvising part from more hardcore jazz musicians, improvisers and free players that aren’t represented."

'Flat Tires' by Medeski, Martin and Wood

-- Chris Barton

Medeski, Martin and Wood play Thursday at the El Rey, 5515 Wilshire Blvd., L.A. 8 p.m. (323) 936-6400. Also Friday at the House of Blues Anaheim, 1530 S. Disneyland Drive, 8 p.m. (714) 778-2583.

Photo: Billy Martin, left, Chris Wood and John Medeski. Credit: Liz Penta