Friday Afternoon in the Universe by Medeski, Martin & Wood
Time to get funky.
If you don't know anything about this group, then you're missing out on some of the funkiest, head-bobbingest, shake-your-groove-thingest jazz fusion out there. The MMW trio has been churning out their own brand of experimental fusion since the early '90s and frankly, they've never disappointed. They've managed to keep their sound - bass, drums, keys/organ mainly - while maintaining a fresh approach whether it's through guest artist spots or concept albums. This gem from '95 is no exception.
The opening track, "The Lover" tells you everything you need to know about this group. Billy Martin lays down some cowbell-infused funk on the kit, Chris Wood will keep your bass bones quite happy, and John Medeski makes the Hammond jump, jive, AND wail. This almost six-and-a-half minute track explores several textures and feels all of which feel great, which show just how versatile these musicians are.
Before the albums third and fourth tracks, which to this listener are similar in nature, we get a little taste of the groups whimsical side. "Paper Bass" is a minute-long bass improvisation with percussion and keys accompanying. As a listener this little snippet doesn't offer much to grab onto, but being an avid MMW listener, I've come to expect these little ideas that surely reference some sort of inside joke or studio jam. (Three tracks later we get another example in "Baby Clams" with what sounds like clavinet, cello, hand drums, and pandiero.)
The album's third and fourth tracks, "House Mop" and "Last Chance to Dance Trance (Perhaps)" are of the same vein: hey both sound like a MMW spin on electronic house music. "House Mop" features an aggressive pounding upbright that is backed up by repetitive keyboard riffs/chords and uptempo disco drum grooves. "Last Chance" sounds like a downtempo version of the same idea. Lots of changing textures alternative with bass, keys, and drum breaks, much like an extended house music mix one might find in a nightclub. The MMW version however is much less digital and much more organic. This is one of those that you can close your eyes and imagine nightclub-hopping through the streets of some Eastern European city with a bunch of barely-English-speaking friends you just met who promised you the time of your life!
For the album's sixth tune, we get back to the super-funky feel established in "The Lover." "We're So Happy" features Tonino Benson playing ray-gun (yes, as in, the toy gun first-grade boys play with). The track progresses through some clavinet-ified funk with some crazy harmonies to some more straight up 1970's fusion with organ, every so often with a crazy free jazz jam session in between. The eight minute track's half-time section starts just before the six minute mark and carries us home. The variety and feel changes in this tune are always fresh and keep the listener guessing for the length of two normal pop tunes.
The following song, "Shack" sounds like a foreshadowing to the group's follow-up album "Shack Man," (a hip-hop inspired joint that ditches some of the free jazz techniques and replaces 'em with early underground drum breaks). "Shack" is much more predictable in its phrase length and harmony. Don't worry, there's still plenty of room for head-bobbing though.
The next interlude, "Tea," features Chris Wood on wood Flute blowing some crazy notes over an almost church-ready organ progression while Billy Martin doodles on the non-drumhead parts of his kit.
We're back to the funk with the album's ninth track "Chinoiserie." Chris Wood is laying down a super-syncopated funk line that sucks you in right off the bat. Martin's choice of groove is as tasteful as ever and for Medeski, the choice to use a regular piano for the first half of the track is a nice change from the organ. This tune also features the only true drum solo we hear on the album which gives Mr. Martin a chance to show of both the variety of tricks in his stick bag but also his excellent control and ability to play with time.
The next one, "Between Two Limbs" is another interlude that for me, just fills a little space. Ironically enough, the texture and flavor of this piece sounds more like a stereotypical jazz trio than anything else on the whole album.
Track 11, "Sequel" is a textbook of how changing textures can totally change the feel of a song. Martin's bass drum and hihat start us off until we're accompanied with bass hits and then later, organ. The phrases are predictable, but every single time, we get one or two things that are just a little different then the last. This one's got plenty to teach any aspiring funk musicians.
The album's title track is up next and let me tell you, you're in for a doozy. "Friday Afternoon" sounds just like what the universe would play if it were condensed down into a funky jazz trio, went to have lunch at a tiny Ethiopian restaurant, saw a B-list movie at the dollar theater, and then broke into a recording studio to play instruments the musicians had only read about in books... Ok, maybe that's a small exaggeration. The song's first four minutes are a cacophony of exotic sounds and textures that frankly sound like a schizophrenic mess. There will be no shaking of the groove thing for this one. Shortly after the four minute mark, the group gives us a little snippet of stability with a tasty groove and ethereal organ and bass that too-quickly fade into oblivion.
Last interlude: "Billy's Toolbox." I'm pretty sure Billy Martin is playing with items from a toolbox while Chris Wood plucks some random strings on the upright for this half-minute idea.
Next up, we have "Chubb Sub." This is probably my favorite on the whole album. Super-funky with lots of crunchy harmonies that give way to some sweet organ riffs that are almost sing-able. This is quintessential MMW in this listener's opinion. Sure to please the masses and the trio enthusiasts alike.
The album goes out on a 48-second Thai flute solo by Carl Green that sounds like it's been recorded outside even though I'm sure the bird sounds are pre-recorded. Makes sense as the track is called "Khob Khun Krub" which we're told is Thai for 'Thank you.'
All in all this should be a staple in any MMW fan's CD collection as it shows of the versatility, instrumental prowess, and sense of humor that the group is known for. Check it out for yourself!