Medeski Martin and Wood

THERE'S QUITE A STREET BUZZ developing around instrumental jazz trio Medeski Martin and Wood. It's a scene that's being compared to the cult followings of the Grateful Dead and Phish. Fans are flocking to MMW shows, trading tapes of the live concerts, and discussing it all on the Internet. It's a word-of-mouth phenomenon that's been built solely on touring.

Keyboardist John Medeski, drummer Billy Martin and bassist/ guitarist Chris Wood have developed a style of soulful funky jazz that's so unique, critics aren't sure what to call it. Some have ventured to label it as acid jazz, jazz pop, fusion, jam, or just plain groove. The band doesn't really care what its called.

"We don't address that subject. We just make the music," Medeski told POLLSTAR. He said if jazz is defined as certain styles that reference a certain time in American music history, "then we're not jazz. [But] if jazz is a spirit of music that is about improvising and relating to the music of your time, but trying to take it to a different place than the more commercial music, then I think we are playing jazz."

No matter what you call it, the consensus is that MMW is breaking new ground, both in musical style and the way the group approaches its career. From the beginning, the trio attacked its career more like a rock band than a jazz group.

The three players, who have all been called virtuosos on their instruments, joined together in New York about six years ago. "We just got together to play music and we were trying to sort of combine a funkier, more dance groove oriented kind of rhythm section with a jazz aesthetic," Medeski said. MMW decided to record some of that material and put out its own CD.

"Then we just, on a whim, printed up some press kits and sent them out to some clubs," Medeski said. When venues started to respond, the band set out on its first tour. They lost their shirts on that outing but kept on going, building audiences with each return visit to a town. Eventually, the members moved out of their apartments and hit the road full time.

"Billy had a van so we first went out in the van and we ended up staying with people we'd meet at the gigs, staying on their floors. It was total vagabond, gypsy style and it was great," Medeski said. "We brought gas cookers and pots and cooked on the road so, we ate good. And we'd just go out for a couple weeks and we'd have three or four gigs a week so we'd have time off and we'd enjoy the places we were at." The group eventually bought a camper and lived on the road going from campsite to campsite and gig to gig, playing everything from coffeehouses to alternative rock clubs.

In its travels, MMW ended up drawing fans from just about every demographic. "I think we overlap a lot of different categories," Medeski said. "I think pretty much anybody … who's looking for something a little bit different or stretching out a little bit more than your average commercial music, I think they can appreciate what we're doing. It's not totally inaccessible because we're exploring groove music."

Many are surprised by the band's younger fan base. Medeski said MMW has inspired kids to go out and buy albums by traditional jazz legends. "By hearing us, they took another step further into it. I think that's great. That really makes us happy."

The young, hip audience element has created a loyal cult following for MMW that is fueled by the Internet and tape trading. Though Medeski said tape trading is a strange thing from a business perspective, the band doesn't mind. "Personally, I like to go to a concert and just experience it. I don't want to be taping it," he said. "But if that's what people want to do, and then they take it and they turn on friends to our music, I think the word spreads really fast that way. It's like a whole community, a network of people that trade tapes. And it's their way of communicating and showing what's going on. It really helps spread the word. It helps bring people to the gigs." Medeski said he doesn't think tape trading affects record sales, which is good news for the group's record label, Gramavision/Rykodisc.

Another musician on Gramavision turned the label onto MMW and the company signed the group to a three-album deal. The group's latest release, Shack-man, is the last of those contracted albums. Now, the members must decide whether or not to sign with a major. "It's a big decision. It's not an easy decision, being the independent-minded people that we are," Medeski chuckled. "But there's also a lot of incredible benefits if it works right," he said. "We're gonna make a decision soon."

The making of Shack-man is a good example of the independence MMW requires to do its thing. The group recorded the album in a shack in the remote jungles of Hawaii without the luxuries of electricity, phones or water. But Medeski said they made due. "We'd catch rain water and there's plenty of rain. And we'd use solar power to power our stuff and brought in the generator to help boost our capacity a little bit, you know, to charge the batteries up because we didn't have enough solar cells to do it all that way." He said it took about eight days to record the album. "We couldn't record all day, every day so [we would] record in the morning, let the batteries charge, and then record at night."

The trio has used the Hawaiian jungle shack to practice every winter for the past four years and wanted to capture its magic. "The actual shack itself has an incredible sound to it and we also get into a certain mode when we're there," Medeski said. "There's a certain sound … that's very raw."

The band just got back from its annual winter voyage to Hawaii and has hit the road for West Coast dates through April then will do East Coast dates opening for Maceo Parker.

Medeski Martin and Wood is booked by Kristin Wallace Booking and managed by Liz Penta of LP Management.