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The Visionaries in the Machine 

The Paul Bunyans of music: Medeski, Martin, and Wood take on the synthesizer, the drum track.
The challenge for the modern musician is this: How do you sound like a machine and not like a machine at the same time? How do you match the mathematical precision and power of a drum program and/or the immense sonic spectrum of a sampler or synthesizer — and still add something different that justifies your presence in place of a machine? That 22-year-old expects you to sound at least as good as the machines she’s heard all her life. How do you meet her expectations and still surprise her?

Few musicians have met this challenge as well as the trio of keyboardist John Medeski, drummer Billy Martin, and bassist Chris Wood. Just listen to “The Dropper,” the title track of the trio’s 2000 album. Medeski comes up with all sorts of sounds — a seething synth, a soul-jazz B-3 organ, frog croaks, squiggly electronics, a scraping percussion noise, robotic flute, toy squeaks — as strange as any machine could generate. But he continually adds, subtracts, and modifies those elements — and even plays jazz harmonies through them — in a way no machine ever could.

Medeski gets the most attention, because he plays the melodic instruments, but the rhythm section is even more impressive. Martin plays a snare and high-hat pattern so solid that it sounds mechanical, at least until you notice that he’s playing the kick drum in a totally unpredictable way that pushes and pulls at the steady beat. Meanwhile, Wood is playing a funky, melodic, stop-and-go on the electric bass that’s so hypnotic that it must be a loop. But it’s not. He adds or displaces notes so subtly that he never loses the mesmerizing repetition while avoiding the eventual tiresomeness of a loop.

These are not the fast-and-flashy passages that win applause at heavy-metal arena concerts, old-school jazz clubs, or music conservatory recitals. But these machine-informed chops are needed for a new century. Medeski, Martin, and Wood display this skill throughout their new retrospective disc, Note Bleu: The Best of the Blue Note Years 1998-2005. It’s the best single-disc introduction to the trio’s work, but just as interesting is how they’ve applied these machine-informed ideas to five different projects released this year.

The album with the highest profile is Out Louder (Indirecto), a quartet session credited to Medeski, Scofield, Martin, and Wood. Guitarist John Scofield, who has long straddled the boundary between jazz and funk, worked with the trio on his 1998 album A Go Go. But the trio has grown by such leaps and bounds since then that they are now able to engage Scofield on a more equal basis, and the result is not only a shared credit but also a remarkable recording.

The trio gives a post-hip-hop edge to the guitarist’s ’70s-era funk, while Scofield’s fierce forward momentum curbs the trio’s jam-band meandering. The album touches on many different styles, from the retro-soul-jazz vamp of “Little Walter Rides Again” to the demented flamenco of “Tequila and Chocolate,” from the improvised psychedelia of “Telegraph” to the Weather Report-like fusion of “What Now.” The quartet pays hornless tribute to the electrified Miles Davis (Scofield’s former employer) on “Miles Behind” and even creates some heartfelt romanticism on the Beatles ballad “Julia.” One hopes it’s not another nine years before they record again.

Scotty Hard (aka Scott Harding) is a mixer and engineer who worked with the Wu-Tang Clan and Kool Keith before moving into the jazz-funk fusion world. Hard produced or co-produced 10 of the 15 tracks on Note Bleu, and he reunites with Medeski along with Matthew Shipp on an album called Scotty Hard’s Radical Reconstructive Surgery (Thirsty Ear). If any jazz keyboardists have exceeded Medeski in playing like and unlike a machine, it’s Shipp and Jason Moran. Shipp’s playing, even on his recent solo acoustic-piano album One (Thirsty Ear), borrows its phrasing from loops and programs, while Moran’s recent album, Artist in Residence (Blue Note), improvises on spoken-voice samples in a manner analogous to hip-hop.

For his second solo album, Hard has recruited not only Medeski and Shipp but also Shipp’s longtime bassist William Parker, Moran’s longtime drummer Nasheet Waits, and turntablist DJ Olive. Hard and Olive use actual machines to generate sci-fi soundscapes and agitated rhythms, but what’s most interesting about the record is the way the musicians grab hold of those mechanical phrases, replicate them faithfully, and then run variations on them in much the same way the Charlie Parker Quintet once improvised on show tunes. It works only because Medeski and Shipp can convincingly imitate the microchip syntax before they mutate it.

Dave Burrell is a very different sort of keyboardist, a free-jazz master since the mid-’60s, but his two releases this year both feature younger, machine-savvy drummers. Momentum (High Two) is a trio session with Baltimore bassist Michael Formanek and New York drummer Guillermo E. Brown. Consequences (Amulet) is an unaccompanied duo date with Billy Martin.

It’s odd to use the word “techno” to describe Consequences, an album that features nothing but acoustic piano and percussion, but Martin’s phrasing and attack are so informed by machines that even in their absence you can hear their influence. On the 18-minute opening track, “Monsoon,” Martin plays as freely and nearly as effectively as Burrell, but on the 10-minute second track, “New Species,” the drummer and pianist create looplike figures that they quickly subvert with altered accents. The rest of the album moves between free-improv sections and repetitive-phrase sections, building a marvelous tension.

Chris Wood’s outside project this year couldn’t be more different from Martin’s and Medeski’s. Wood’s father, Bill, was a microbiologist who played folk music on the side and once recorded three duets with Joan Baez. While Chris went to the New England Conservatory of Music and joined Medeski, Martin, and Wood, his older brother Oliver moved to Atlanta and joined the local blues-rock scene. The two siblings decided to join forces as the folk-blues duo the Wood Brothers in 2004 and this year released their debut album, Ways Not to Lose (Blue Note), with Medeski producing.

There’s another new Medeski album, the just-released CD of his 2003 appearance on Marian McPartland’s radio show, Piano Jazz (Jazz Alliance). McPartland is a terrific interviewer, and she gets Medeski to talk about the acoustic-piano roots of his electric-keyboard playing and then to demonstrate by playing old standards by Thelonious Monk, Harold Arlen, and Duke Ellington. McPartland was a veteran of the ‘40s bebop scene in Manhattan, while Medeski is a 40-year-old fusion hero, but they get along famously, playing a two-piano duet with her guest on the trio’s “Bubble House.” By the show’s end, the 88-year-old McPartland sounds as game for anything as the four-decades-her-junior Medeski, or any of his peers. 

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