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Friday, July 11, 2008

Medeski, Martin & Wood at Jefferson Center

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Life has rarely been simple for improv-heavy jazzers Medeski, Martin & Wood.

Hundreds of shows on countless stages and 18 records in 17 years have made the band a songwriting and recording force.

In the five years since MMW last played Roanoke, the band has moved so quickly that it decided a record label can't keep up. So two years ago John Medeski, Billy Martin and Chris Wood started their own label, Indirecto Records.

Their latest project, "The Radiolarian Series," gives audiences something novel -- newly written music, fleshed out onstage over the course of a short tour, then quickly recorded. The band has already finished the first of the three-disc series, after a late-February tour in the Northeast. "Radiolarian 1" will hit the market Sept. 20.

On Saturday night at Roanoke's Jefferson Center, MMW debuts the music that will become disc two. Four other shows in the mid-South will follow, then it's back to the studio, rinse and repeat.

Bassist Chris Wood said the band planned to write the new songs this week.

"We set it up this way because we wanted to basically force ourselves to come up with a bunch of new material," Wood said in a June 27 phone interview from his home near Woodstock, N.Y. "And it's kind of getting back to our roots of writing together and just composing a lot of music, you know."

It's something the band couldn't have done on its former label, Blue Note Records, or any other label but its own, he said.

"We always felt, musically anyway -- there's always a lot of logistics involved -- we could put out a record a month, if everything was set up properly for us," he said. "We always felt limited by these traditional record deals."

The band sometimes had to wait up to two years to release new music on Blue Note, he said.

"We're not a commercial band," he said. "We're not the kind of band that puts out a record and then supports that record with tons of touring, playing only the music from that record. We just never functioned that way.

"So for us it kind of makes sense for our style of creating music and touring. It just keeps things sort of real fresh and exciting for us. Keeps us creative and growing."

The pseudopod series

So, what are radiolarians?

According to the University of Hawaii online, they are protozoa found in the ocean and "secrete complicated silicate exoskeletons, called tests. These tests are usually spherically symmetrical with lots of spines radiating outward. The cell sticks out its pseudopods ('false feet') through holes to capture food."

False feet capture food through its holes! German biologist Ernst Haeckel was aboard the H.M.S. Challenger in the early 1860s, observing and drawing radiolarians.

MMW drummer Billy Martin recently found the resulting book, "Art Forms From The Ocean: The Radiolarian Atlas of 1862," about the same time the band was brainstorming this tour and series, Wood said.

"It was just something we were attracted to and somehow seemed to fit the feeling of the music and what we were trying to do," Wood said.

That's not all the band is up to. It's preparing for the inaugural MMW Music Camp, at a resort in the Catskill Mountains in New York. And all three members have side projects. Wood and his brother, Oliver, recently released "Loaded," their second album as the Wood Brothers.

MMW also has spent time on the road with guitarist John Scofield, traveling as Medeski, Scofield, Martin & Wood. That funky quartet plays together tonight at the All Good Music Festival & Camp Out, in Masontown, W. Va. The Wood Brothers also play at All Good that day.

"I'm having a great time," Wood said.

Go to this story at roanoke.com for audio of this interview, including Wood's discussion of what he looks for in road chow.

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