On Saturday, September 17th, Medeski Martin & Wood will reunite for the first time since 2019 at Brooklyn Comes Alive—thirty-one years after first coalescing in a nearby Brooklyn loft. The rare performance will serve as a celebration of their 30th anniversary as a band, which took place last year.

Over the past three decades, the groundbreaking trio has been at the forefront of multiple genres, helping to redefine the relationships between funk, jazz, jam, and contemporary classical music with an eclectic blend of deep grooves, avant-garde improvisation, and sounds inspired by influences from around the world.

Related: Brooklyn Comes Alive 2022: STS9, Lettuce, Medeski Martin & Wood, Cool Cool Cool [Recap/Photos/Videos]

John Medeski, Billy Martin, and Chris Wood originally met through jazz drummer Bob Moses. The three musicians frequented Manhattan’s downtown scene, where they commingled with the likes of John Zorn, Marc Ribot, Cyro Baptista‘s Beat the Donkey, and John Lurie‘s Lounge Lizards, a band that featured both Billy Martin and John Medeski.

Medeski and Chris Wood regularly played together as a duo at The Village Gate on Bleecker Street, and when the club expanded, they started performing with a third person on drums. “We played with a lot of different drummers, great ones,” Medeski told Live For Live Music by phone, “but they were all trying to be jazz, in the more standard vein.” The first time they played with Billy Martin at the drummer’s loft in Dumbo, Brooklyn, things immediately clicked. “It was like, ‘Wow, this is really different.’ I don’t know, it felt more honest about who we really were.” Medeski recorded and transcribed the trio’s first-ever improvised jam, which became “Uncle Chubb”, a song on the band’s first record, 1992’s Notes from the Underground.

The unique qualities of Billy’s drumming style were emblematic of his multifaceted musical background. In addition to jazz, he was heavily influenced by Brazilian samba and various kinds of dance music, which were reflected in his funky drum beats. “I was living in New Jersey going to high school and I would go into New York City to go clubbing at Studio 54 and all these other dance clubs,” Billy explained on a separate call. “I was also listening to R&B and pop radio a lot, and they were incorporating dance mixes and 12″ LP extended mixes. That was what we were hearing in the clubs, and those are the records that I would get.”

Billy took an interest in the way producers and DJs would extend songs to give people more time on the dance floor. “When you listen to extended mixes of a hit song or whatever you realize it gets stretched out by dropping out parts and leaving other parts exposed. They go back to the multi-track and they’re able to kind of re-edit everything. They can have a capella parts, and then boom everything drops out but the rhythm section.” MMW would employ a similar technique, extending improvised grooves into longer jams and songs by suddenly dropping out instruments and rearranging parts.

Medeski Martin & Wood were also influenced by artists from the golden age of hip-hop, including the Beastie Boys, Run DMC, Lil Kim, and The Notorious B.I.G., some of whom sampled drum grooves and breaks from older funky drummers like Clyde Stubblefield (James Brown) and “Funky” George Brown (Kool & the Gang).

“What I loved about the production was you would hear how they combined two elements that didn’t relate at all,” Billy said. “It sometimes didn’t even sound correct because there were different keys or, like, the different beats were kind of swinging differently. That was highly influential in my playing and my approach. I would say to John and Chris, ‘Check this sh– out. We gotta do this live.'”

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The hard edits and surprising juxtapositions used by hip-hop producers also had an influence on the band’s writing process. “We’d use the studio as a compositional tool, using something improvised as the framework,” Medeski explained.

After playing their first gigs in New York, Medeski Martin & Wood decided to hit the road. “We went out on the road just to be able to play the music because there was no way to play our music together every night in New York,” Medeski explained. “If we stayed in New York City, we maybe would’ve had a gig once a month, once every so often. The logistics of playing in New York or Philadelphia or Boston are a nightmare, especially if you’re a band touring in a van.”

The trio bought an RV to live in and started touring around the South. With no jam band scene or national touring circuit to speak of, they relied on connections Billy had accumulated during his time with the Lounge Lizards. “I had been doing a lot of Knitting Factory tour stuff,” he explained, “hitting all of the college towns in the U.S. and kind of keeping note of what clubs I liked and different alternative places to play. I kind of got on the business and management end, just naturally. I remember it well, and I seized that moment. I was just like, ‘We gotta do this,’ and they were like, ‘Okay.'”

“It was an incredibly liberating experience because we had all played with different bands, but they were all bandleader-led groups,” Martin added. “There wasn’t really that kind of collaborative, democratic sort of thing where we’re all shaping this together. We’re all owners, you know? I think we were all at a place where we were sick of being side men, and this was the answer.”

The trio’s first two albums were completely acoustic—featuring drums, piano, and upright bass—but once they were on the road, Medeski quickly realized, “there’s no good pianos anywhere. Even good jazz clubs tend to have mediocre pianos. For one tour we brought a digital piano, but I just hated it.” To solve this dilemma, he began using a Hammond B3 organ, an instrument he learned to play while performing with a blues band in Boston. “I never really imagined I’d be an organ player, but I fell in love with the instrument the first time I played a real Hammond.”

Going electric introduced a new palette of sonic textures which was further expanded by adding different amplifiers, effects, and eventually additional keyboards. “Also, the electric organ has a little more power, you know, volume-wise,” John explained. “So it enabled us to kind of open up another world of possibilities.”

It wasn’t easy traveling with an organ, “but fortunately for me,” Medeski noted gratefully, “those guys were willing to help move the freaking thing.”

Remembering his role as helper in the early days with the organ, Billy recalled, “There was no question that I would do anything John needed to do to play these gigs, so I never thought about it. It just was what it was. We were just really psyched to be doing it.” He went on to admit that “there were times where it was starting to get a little unwieldy when he had trap cases and bigger equipment. After a while he not only had the B3 but he had heavy guitar amps, and a Wurlitzer keyboard, and a clavinet.  We ended up getting a U-Haul trailer that we could tow just so we could fit all that stuff in. It was a bit of a pain in the ass, but it was all worth it.”

In 1995, Medeski Martin & Wood released their third album, Friday Afternoon In The Universe. It was the trio’s first album to feature Hammond organ, giving the record more of soul/funk vibe than their previous releases, which stuck to a more traditional piano trio instrumentation. Phish started using the album as house music at concerts, which prompted interest among the jam band’s legions of fans.

Billy recalled the night Phish came to one of the trio’s shows. “We didn’t know who they were at all, honestly, until our manager, Liz Penta at the time, introduced them, like, ‘These guys are fans of yours, they just wanna say hello, I’m bringing them backstage.’ She told us like, ‘Yeah, this is a band named Phish. They’re really nice guys. I just met them. They were dancing in the back and I had to bring them back to meet you.’ And they came back and they were very unassuming. It was just like just any other dudes or fans. And then the next day someone showed us the paper and said, ‘That band that you met last night sold out Madison Square Garden in 15 minutes.’

“So that was kind of the beginning of our awareness of [them] and that they were fans. And then over time, we started to notice there was more hippie culture coming to our shows—people that were not the normal geeky, hardcore fans. And, of course, there were tapers that would come to our shows. And then, that became a phenomenon where people were learning about us through the tapes. People would share tapes and people would dub cassettes and mail them to each other and stuff, so that was really an interesting phenomenon that came from that subculture.”

Medeski also remembers noticing an influx of the Phish contingent. “I remember a gig, man, we had a tour that was unintentionally very similar routing to theirs and it was in Madison, WI. I think it was one of their nights off and we were playing for I don’t know how many people back then, 500–800, a couple hundred sometimes depending on the market, but all of a sudden we were playing some outdoor thing in Madison and there were thousands of kids there and it was like, ‘Oh, okay. Something’s happening here.’ Turns out, it was their audience looking for something to do on the night off.”

MMW’s ties to Phish eventually led to a few different musical collaborations. The trio was slated to open for Phish in New Orleans on October 17th, 1995—a position few artists have been in since the band usually plays two sets with no opener—but the two groups first joined forces on stage in Austin, TX three days prior, delivering a “ridiculously experimental ‘You Enjoy Myself,'” per Phish.net. Trey reciprocated the guest appearance later that night,  sitting in on guitar with the trio. Three nights later, MMW opened for Phish as planned. The two bands collaborated on a jammed-out rendition of Phish’s multiple-piano experimental tune, “Keyboard Army”.

MMW’s association with Phish and the by-then burgeoning jam band scene exponentially boosted their popularity amongst a certain demographic exponentially, but it did have its drawbacks. “The downside of the Phish connection was the audience,” Medeski explained. “Music is not always just about the music. Sometimes it’s also about the scene, you know? And a lot of people wrote us off because of the scene even though they never even listened to our music. It wasn’t about the music, they just didn’t wanna deal with that scene.”

“The same thing happened when we got an opening slot with Dave Matthews for five shows,” the keyboardist added. “We could have approached it differently. Instead, we went up there and we didn’t even have a set list. We just went and played the wildest sh– we could possibly play. Not the right thing for that audience [laughs] but we figured, ‘Hey, we’re just gonna be as real as possible. And if ten people that didn’t hear us before hear [us] and they’re like, ‘”Well, that’s cool,” then great.’ We were never interested in doing something for obvious or commercial reasons. It’s probably stupid, but that’s the way we are.”

“There was a certain point where it was aggravating because we would be improvising—’cause a lot of our approach was boom, let’s improvise,” he continued. “We would get into the swamp, you know, and then something always emerges, but you kind of gotta open that door. You gotta kick the door open or open the gate and just enter the realm. And then within that realm, you can maybe find something that’s new. That’s, like, the lotus out of the swamp, you know?

“And when we would do that, there would be these dudes out there while we’re doing it, yelling, ‘Do something!’ And you know, I couldn’t help but be like, ‘You know what? F— you. This is gonna go on longer now,’ and that’s not about the music, either. And then as soon as we played a groove, they’d all be happy. And that was frustrating because so much of what we do is about sound. … I mean, we like to groove, don’t get me wrong. I love a groove, but I also hear groove in everything. There doesn’t need to be a tempo for there to be rhythm. And maybe it’s only one person who’s being vocal about it. Maybe the other 2,900 people don’t feel that way, but that’s the one guy you hear, and it kind of affects your perception of what’s going on out there.”

During the cold winter months, Medeski Martin & Wood would park their RV and travel to Hawaii, where a friend rented them a shack for $300 a month. “We’d just be in the jungle with just enough solar power to power a couple things, and we would just hang out there in the jungle and play all the time,” said Medeski. They decided to record their fourth album, Shack-man, on location in the shack. “We wanted to record there because we loved the sun and we loved the vibe that we got into. We knew that it was different than anything we could get into in another more generic professional studio. We realized we wanted to capture what we had been doing there, and we knew that we could only capture it there.”

“In that sense,” he added, “we were very confident in our concepts, but I would say that the record company was not so confident with us taking our budget and buying solar panels. We just felt like this is the thing to do, but then within the details of it, I lost my mind several times. We went in with a 16-track mixer and the first day, one of the machines just crapped out because of the humidity so we ended up with eight tracks for the whole record.

“And then I had brought this organ to a guy I had found there for him to repair, and I called him like three weeks before and he hadn’t even looked at it or done anything and thought that the date was like three months later. And it was just like, ‘Oh, Christ. I don’t have an organ,’ but then everything kind of just worked out. We ended up finding a Hammond that this local dentist had in his house. I went there, talked to him, played it a little bit, and next thing I know we were sitting in the back of a pickup truck driving out into the jungle. And then, our friend, Carl Green, who’s sort of the Shack-man, said, ‘Hey man, you know, I see there’s this ad for a speaker with pulleys in it and they want 50 bucks.’ So we went and looked at it and sure enough it was a Leslie speaker. I gave them 75 because 50 seemed so ridiculous. But anyway, things kind of just sort of fell together, but it was like nonstop trying to pull it off. Because of the budget, we didn’t quite have enough solar panels to really power everything, so we had to get this old Jeep motor generator to help us when we needed it to charge the batteries.”

“I lost my mind a couple times while we were playing, feeling like we were not going to get a record out of it,” Medeski reflected. “But that’s always part of the process for me is doubting. And in the end it worked out, and it’s still some my favorite stuff we’ve done.”

With each album, Medeski Martin & Wood continued to break new musical ground, and their fourth release, 1998’s Combustication, was no exception. The album was the band’s first to feature a turntablist, DJ Logic, who brought totally new sounds to the band, adding a fourth voice that could take any shape with prerecorded samples in addition to percussive record scratching.

Vernon Reid kind of introduced us to Logic back in the day, and then we just called him in to work on this record,” Medeski said. Producer Scott Harding, or Scotty Hard, was instrumental to the recording process, as well. According to Medeski. “He had worked with Wu-Tang and Prince Paul, and he had also worked with Teo Macero, so he had a background that was very aligned with ours.

“We brought Logic in and it just sounded and felt great. And then, we mixed it and used our compositional taste to make choices and create the record Combustication. That was sort of the beginning of that era. Then we took logic on the road and started really improvising.” The band would go on to play with DJ Olive and P Love at different times. “They were great improvisers,” John said, “Very spontaneous and able to be in there while stuff is happening and add something to help it grow.”

1998 also brought forth Medeski Martin & Wood’s first collaboration with renowned jazz guitarist John Scofield. According to Billy, the band was in disbelief when Sco left them a message on their island answering machine. “I didn’t actually hear the message because we were in Hawaii at the time and John [Medeski] had gone into town to do some shopping and check our messages because we were literally living in a shack in the woods. And that’s when he heard John Scofield’s message and he didn’t believe it! He said, ‘Oh, it’s one of my friends messing with me,’ because he had friends that were always leaving crank messages and stuff, so we didn’t take it seriously at first.”

They figured out the message was real when they received an offer to go make an album. “John [Scofield] was just like, ‘Yeah, let’s get together for a day and then go in the studio,'” Billy explained. “He wrote all the music and we just went in and played. We were like his rhythm section. It went very smoothly. He was very organized and it was very relaxed. John [Scofield]’s just a great person to work with, really easy to play with for a drummer. He’s got such a great time feel and everything, so it was really a pleasure and really easy and really smooth. And then, we went into the studio and just made the record in like one or two days, did a couple takes of each song, and that was A Go Go.”

Releasing an album with John Scofield via Verve Records helped legitimize the trio in the eyes of some of the mainstream jazz crowd. “Sometimes people need to read about it or hear a record or see that you’re on a label that has a certain catalog, whether it’s Blue Note or Verve, and then they know it’s important,” Billy said. “So, some people were like, ‘They’re working with John Scofield. They must be good.’ And those kinds of people started to seep in. There are a lot of people that I talk to, younger and older, that really didn’t necessarily know who we were or relate to what we were doing until they heard that record.” Scofield’s melodic sensibility and knack for songwriting proved to be more palatable for certain listeners than the avant-garde “punk rock” that got MMW banned from Baltimore’s Jazz Society, and audiences were quick to respond.

“The record just took off, I mean really took off, and people would come out to see us play with John  Scofield who wouldn’t come to our regular gigs, and the other way around too.” Billy said. “It definitely grew things. I think it also introduced John Scofield to the jam band world and the younger sort of roots of the Phish world.”

After A Go Go, the trio would go on to release three albums with John Scofield as Medeski Scofield Martin & Wood—2006’s Out Louder, 2014’s Juice, and 2011’s MSMW LIVE: In Case The World Changes Its Mind—as well as other experimental albums, like The Dropper, Uninvisible, End Of The World Party (Just In Case)Radiolarians I, II, and III, and 20, plus a couple live recordings.

Another chapter in MMW history arrived in 2014 with the release of Let’s Go Everywhere, the band’s first and only children’s album. Why make a children’s album? “Because everybody started having kids and realized that most children’s records suck, but kids aren’t stupid,” Medeski said. “If you look at other cultures, more indigenous cultures that have music as a big part of their life, they don’t dumb the music down for the kids, and we shouldn’t either.”

With their newfound maturity, Medeski Martin & Wood also took an interest in educating the younger generation of musicians. For five years in a row, they hosted MMW Camps at Full Moon Resort in Big Indian, NY. Billy Martin continues to run Rhythm, Sound, Magic camps at the same location alongside Cyro Baptista, who now plays with Trey Anastasio Band as a result of the Phish/MMW connection. He has also published a couple different books, including Riddim: Claves of African Origin, and he is now the Director and CEO of Creative Music Studio, a nonprofit for contemporary creative music founded in 1971 by Karl Berger, Ingrid Sertso, and Ornette Coleman. He recently began teaching classes at The New School.

Medeski Martin & Wood’s latest album, 2018’s Omnisphere, was their first foray into contemporary classical music, though they all share a lifelong affinity for the genre and used to listen to chamber music together alongside hip-hop and other styles while traveling in their RV. Made in collaboration with 20-piece chamber orchestra Alarm Will Sound, Omnisphere features original compositions and arrangements of previously released MMW songs.

Medeski Martin & Wood are currently working on a new album for the first time since 2018. “It’s gonna be different than anything we’ve done,” said Medeski. “It’s more atmospheric. It’s grooving, but it’s kind of atmospheric. There are a few strong songs, but a lot of it is what we do using … new sounds. I’m excited about it.”

Will the trio tour in support of the new album? The answer to that is still unclear, but it doesn’t seem likely. “We decided to take a year off a while back to see what that felt like, and we haven’t gotten back together to tour that way,” Medeski said. “Chris has really launched with The Wood Brothers, and that’s what he likes doing right now. And Billy’s been sort of prepping his educational thing for years. He’s busy with CMS and writing his book and developing his concepts. And so, I just see everything’s kind of just slowing naturally. I feel like we had a good run, which is not to say we’re done, necessarily. We’re working on this record. It’s just things take longer when everybody’s so busy doing other things.”

Medeski paused for moment to ponder whether the the band has run its course. “I mean, let’s be honest. We hit at a zeitgeist moment, you know? When we were doing what we were doing in the beginning, it was very pioneering and that felt good. But when something gets really established it starts to lose that.”

Billy seemed even less optimistic that an MMW reunion tour will materialize. “I don’t see us really touring on a record. Maybe we’ll get some offers we can’t refuse and we can go out and fit it into our lives, but our lives are not really open for extensive touring. So I don’t think any extensive touring will happen, but it’s possible. We could get some really good energy from promoters and fans and just be like, ‘Wow, we gotta go there, and let’s go there. Let’s figure out a little tour,’ you know? I never say never, but it’s doubtful.”

In addition to running CMS and teaching at The New School, Billy is writing a new book about his concept of rhythmic harmony and making a new solo record. Medeski continues to perform with various groups as one of the world’s most in-demand instrumentalists, including his gospel-influenced blues band The Word with Robert Randolph. Medeski and Martin frequently perform together as a duo.

As for Chris Wood, he recently got married and moved to a farm in Canada. Between that and making music with his brother Oliver Wood and multi-instrumentalist Jano Rix as The Wood Brothers, the bassist has little availability for Medeski Martin & Wood these days.

After more than thirty years of musical democracy, Medeski Martin & Wood remain one of the most beloved bands in jazz, funk, and the jam band scene. With a full-blown tour seeming increasingly unlikely, their rare live performance at Brooklyn Comes Alive is sure to be an extra-special reunion. Hopefully, it won’t be the last.

Catch Medeski Martin & Wood alongside STS9Lettuce, and Cool Cool Cool at The Brooklyn Mirage on Saturday, September 17th as part of Brooklyn Comes Alive. Tickets for the one-day festival are on sale here. For more details about the event including a full schedule of set times, head here. Check out the complete set of BCA 2022 official artist baseball cards below.

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