Tuesday, August 16, 2011

August 16: Medeski, Martin & Wood, "Sugar Craft"

Artist: Medeski, Martin and Wood
Song: "Sugar Craft"
Album: Combustication
Year: 1998

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While it is certainly not in the spotlight that it was half a century ago, the current world of jazz music remains just as exciting and inventive as ever, yielding some of the most intriguing and creative approaches to the genre that the style has ever heard.  Though some modern jazz musicians have done an amazing job of proving that the "classic" sounds can still be just as powerful today, it is the groups that push the boundaries on the genre that have given the world some of the most exciting and unique music of the past few decades.  Mixing together nearly every genre one can think of, there is simply no other group on the planet that makes music quite like the avant-jazz of Medeski, Martin and Wood.  For more than two decades, the group has been pushing deeper into what is possible within a jazz setting, and there is no question that it is their collective efforts that are one of the main factors in the progression of modern music.  Taking everything from electronica and hip-hop to blues and psychedelic and mixing it all into their distinctive jazz format, there are truly no limits to the appeal of Medeski, Martin and Wood.  Having honed their sound in the New York City underground throughout the early 1990's, it was during the latter half of that decade when the trio finally realized their full musical potential within a studio environmental, and there are few works from any genre within modern music that can boast the sheer brilliance found on Medeski, Martin and Wood's 1998 track, "Sugar Craft."

Serving as the opening track to the trio's amazing Combustication album, they leave little to question as to the extent of their ambition, as the odd sound effect is quickly followed by turntable scratching and a lightning fast, sampled keyboard loop.  This comes courtesy of DJ Logic, who joins the group for a handful of songs across the record, and his presence alone instantly places the band into a category all their own.  Throughout "Sugar Craft," it is the unique sounds and moods from DJ Logic that make the song so unique, and it manages to perfectly straddle the line between a number of genres.  One cannot completely place the song in jazz or hip-hop or electronic, as each are represented equally on the song, proving the groups' unparalleled focus and talents.  It is also the way in which the DJ techniques blend perfectly with the keyboards from John Medeski that become so captivating.  The slinky, descending progression that serves as the central theme to "Sugar Craft" is absolutely fantastic, and yet there is a simplicity to it that makes it even more accessible outside of "jazz circles."  Medeski switches seamlessly from lead to the background, and wherever he is playing within the configuration of the group, he never looses the groove, and the solo he takes is without question one of the finest of his entire career.

However, along with this superb performance, Medeski, Martin and Wood have the benefit of one of the finest rhythm sections in all of music history.  Bassist Chris Wood is easily one of the most talented and creative of his entire generation, and the sway and slide he is able to give "Sugar Craft" quickly becomes one of the most hypnotizing elements of the entire song.  There are also moments within his performance that take on a slightly darker, almost intimidating tone, and it is within these parts of the song where it gains an exceptional amount of depth.  The various fills and progressions that Wood deploys throughout "Sugar Craft" also serve as a clear second rhythm, as he often seems to be "dueling" with drummer Billy Martin.  Yet Martin himself is in rare form, as he seems to fly all over his drum kit, pushing each member of the band in different directions.  Though for the most part his playing sounds rather reserved, it is the manner with which he plays off the other three musicians that is so fantastic.  Whether he is coming in on an "off beat" or creating a truly amazing level of tension through his playing, there are few better examples of the "less is more" principle within drumming.  Furthermore, the complexity that arises from these two players, along with DJ Logic all working different tempos is perhaps the key that makes "Sugar Craft" such a uniquely extraordinary musical experience.

Though many try and "write off" the world of modern jazz as a "watered down" version of the classic sounds, once one gets past the surface of the genre, some of the most creative and original music of the past twenty years lives within the style.  In reality, few groups have constantly pushed the envelope on what could be achieved through music as much as Medeski, Martin and Wood, and whether they are experimenting with equally impressive guitarists or infusing the sounds and styles of a DJ into their compositions, one can easily argue the trio as one of the most important forces of the past two decades of music.  On Combustication, the group completely rewrote everything that was thought to be possible within music, as they perfectly fused together the modern sounds of hip-hop and electronic music with the classic jazz formula.  This is in many ways the most true approach there has ever been to the spirit of jazz, as the foundations of the genre were in the idea of finding complete musical freedom and refusing to conform to the norms and trends previously set.  Furthermore, the fact that Medeski, Martin and Wood achieve this feat with the stunning, sonically pleasing nature that they do is a testament to the exceptional level of talent that the trio have as both musicians as well as "students" of music itself.  Reigniting the flame of jazz music, and turning an entirely new generation on to its full possibilities, there are few moments in music history as pivotal as Medeski, Martin, and Wood's 1998 composition, "Sugar Craft."

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