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Medeski Martin and Wood - Uninvisible Print E-mail
Tuesday, 04 November 2003

Medeski Martin and Wood

format: DVD-Audio
label: Capitol Records/DTS Entertainment
release year: 2003
performance: 8
sound 8.5
reviewed by: Tim Hart

ImageThe jam scene that exists today envelops probably the largest diversity of musical styles gathered under one description. Jazz and fusion, funk, the blues, bluegrass, rock, progressive, and more form the influences. The Grateful Dead was the Miles Davis of jam in their day, experimenting with sound and improvisation in a live environment that at that time was largely unheard of but are the roots of the jam scene today. Many bands have followed the same musical quest for improvisation, extended musical excursions that can lose you and leave wondering where it started, and an intimate intricate interplay of musicians accomplished enough to understand where the feel needs to lead and the ability to get there together, sometimes at the expense of losing the audience.

The more well-known jam groups, such as Phish, Moe, the Dead, String Cheese Incident, the Steve Kimock Band, and others less known, have created their own sounds and fanatic fan bases that have mainstream bands scratching their heads as to why the people who listen to this type of music are so loyal. This is not the “have some friends over for drinks” background music. You are a part of it, hanging on every note and reveling in the fact that although you’ve maybe heard them play this song before, it usually ends up offering a different spin than the last time you heard it. The audience ends up being an integral part of the band and the experience, playing off of each other’s response to one another and taking it to a different level, a musical symbiosis. Having seen the Grateful Dead 176 times, I formed a keen understanding of this fan/band relationship, and saw it blossom as more younger people started showing up at shows (a fan never says concert, it’s always a show), looking for something different and discovering the jam scene. Bands such as Zero and Phish had been around before the demise of Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead, and they filled the void for a lot of West Coast fans when Garcia moved to the next level.

Meanwhile, on the East Coast, the jam scene was gaining momentum, with big jam festivals like Bonneroo offering fans a wide variety of artists currently on the circuit.

Creating their own space in the improv jam scene, Medeski Martin and Wood formed in Brooklyn, New York in 1991, and gained acclaim in Manhattan playing at the Knitting Factory and the Village Gate, adding another musical niche to the jam style. Blending an interesting potpourri of blues and gospel on their 2002 release, Uninvisible, this effort draws on the heritage of improvisational jam, the expertise of jazz, the transients of hip-hop, and the essence of the rave scene, still maintaining the groove-based jam. DTS Entertainment took on the task to create the DVD-Audio 5.1 surround mix, as well as a DTS-ES 6.1 discrete mix, and a stereo PCM mix of MMW’s musical prowess.

One of the issues I personally have with listening to studio jam, as opposed to the live show experience or even a recorded live show, is that you don’t get all of the energy that envelops you when you’re there. That’s the fan/band intangible that doesn’t translate well across all media. I have not been able to see MMW live yet, but it’s not too hard to extrapolate the studio experience and project what the live experience could be like. In one word, it sounds like “fun!”

Dancing has to be a part of MMW gig, as was immediately evident on “Uninvisible.” The ambience literally breathes to you. The DTS 5.1 mix, which I used for all of my listening, takes this experience to a different level, one the band should consider, if they already haven’t, for their live material. The glue that holds the musical menagerie that is MMW together is the killer jazzy snare work and groove beat of Billy Martin and the driving loopy bass laid down by Chris Wood. This gives John Medeski artistic license to paint formless collages of abstract sound that somehow segue into the rhythm section with samples and synth, or a jabbing staccato organ attack that is dynamic and sometimes confusing, not only on this tune, but on the rest of the project as well.

A soulful organ and thick bass line opens “I Wanna Ride You.” The texture and resolution is enjoyable but not at the top of the game. At 48kHz/24-bit, there is a definite improvement over CD: better dynamics, more depth and articulation. Midrange also has more presence than on the CD, where the higher frequencies of the bass sound fuller and more natural, but resonance of the body of the bass lacks the realness that I’ve heard possible on other DVD-A recordings. The decay of the cymbals is better portrayed, but lacks the ring and shimmer that you get with higher sampling rates and word lengths. The recording tends towards the warmer side of neutral, which I like for a lot of reasons. This type of music might become fatiguing after a while if tended towards the brighter side of neutral. The presence of this track is mainly from the three front speakers, but later in the song, they had some fun moving the instruments to other channels. Not what you would call typical, but we are talking about MMW.

From “Your Name Is Snake Anthony,” a trudging laid-back groove underscoring Col. Bruce Hampton’s story talking in blues, to the after-hours feel of “Take Me Nowhere,” Medeski and company sometimes assault, sometimes soothe and sometimes confuse the listener, but never do they bore. It’s a travel plan without a map, but with purpose.

Going a bit tribal, “Retirement Song” has some nice stretched-out bass lines, punctuated with machine-gun organ, intertwined with some lofty synth that somehow sounds right. Bass and percussion tend to be toward the front as synth and organ move without restraint.

As stated earlier, I did all of my listening in the DVD-A 5.1 MLP mode that will only play on DVD-A players. If you have the hardware, you can choose DTS-ES 6.1 (which I didn’t yet have at review time), or Stereo PCM two-channel, if so inclined, that will play on DVD-Video players. The DVD-A is 48KHz/24-bit, not 96KHz/24-bit, so although you’re not getting all that is possible from the format, it is still a step up and very enjoyable.

As far as the extra content, the inner sleeve has the same information as the original CD, including pictures of each artist and their respective instrumental contributions, the guest musicians on this project, track information and production credits, as well as DTS info. The DVD video has a video of “Uninvisible,” which is well-suited to the beat of this song, an onscreen photo gallery, and an artist biography. Not a wealth of extras, but the content makes up for the lack of bonus goodies. If you’re a fan, you are going to like the surround mix for the added dimension. Capturing these ambitious arrangements with a somewhat sane jazz foundation, MMW takes their ever-evolving influences to new directions. The surround mix does add a complimentary element to the music. And while not taking advantage of the full bandwidth that DVD-Audio has to offer, there is no question that there is an improvement. I can only imagine how good it would be to see them live with some extended jams and the incredible musicianship. If you haven’t heard what MMW is all about, now is the time to step up to the plate. You might be dancing in the aisles at the next show. I may see you there. Enjoy.

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