When jazz/fusion/funk/free-improv trio Medeski Martin & Wood played its earliest shows back in 1991, keyboardist John Medeski says, Knoxville was an oasis for improvisational artists of all stripes, a place where non-traditional jazz musicians could find willing audiences whose perceptions were unrestricted by traditional notions of the form.
"When we first started touring, we sort of realized we were turned off by the jazz-club vibe," says Medeski. "I'd grown up loving jazz, but after I went to school and got to New York, I realized the scene was full of imitators. There was nothing original going on. What we found in the jazz clubs was people who wanted to hear the same old stuff; they weren't really interested in keeping the spirit of jazz alive with some relevance.
"We immediately sought out alternative places. We didn't even bother with the Northeast; we headed south. In Knoxville, we first played in a jazz club called Lucille's, and it was great because it didn't have a jazz-club vibe. From there we expanded and played all kinds of places in town. Knoxville, being a college town, I guess, it became a natural spot for us."
Hundreds of gigs and 14 full-length albums later, MM&W is a linchpin of the jazz/improv scene, a popular touring act, and one of the seminal artists in the mid-'90s rise of jam bands. The latter phenomenon also has a Knoxville tie, dating to when local promoter Chuck Burnley booked MM&W with Col. Bruce Hampton on a double bill at his now-defunct Planet Earth nightspot in the Old City. Hampton, of course, is now a long-time regular on the jam/improv scene.
Medeski has mixed feelings about his outfit's association with the genre. "That show with Bruce Hampton, that opened our mind to possibilities," he says. "This was before there was a jam-band scene. The term didn't exist. We saw a credible market to go play for. Since then it's obviously been developed and codified.
"As to some of the bands that run in that circle, some are good, and some aren't. The whole thing is strange to me. I can't knock it because it's been good to us. I think the term ‘jam band' has more to do with the audience than with the music. I can't say I was crazy about the name, but it's not going away."
The key to MM&W's longevity, says Medeski, is that the band's members try to avoid the ruts and routines that tend to make long-time outfits grow bored with their work as well as with one another. "If what we do ever stopped feeling fresh, we'd stop, or else we'd go crazy," Medeski says.
To that end, the trio has experimented with both electric and all-acoustic line-ups; they've recorded projects with jazz-fusion guitarist John Scofield; they recorded an ambient improvisation album, Farmer's Reserve, in 1997; and they even recorded a children's album, Let's Go Everywhere, earlier this year.
Their latest project is one of their most interesting yet. Dubbed The Radiolarian Series, it constitutes three albums, to be released later this year, based on three short tours, also from 2008. Their upcoming Knoxville show will be the third show of the second Radiolarian tour.
Medeski says the band's concept is to take skeletal versions of new songs on the road, and develop them through nightly improvisation—in direct opposition to the standard notion of developing and recording songs, then taking them on the road.
"We wanted to find a way to create more music, a lot more music," Medeski explains. "A lot of these tunes we won't play after the tour; it's a one-time thing. So it's a chance to be creative, come up with new material, and be inspired, as opposed to playing the same stuff all the time.
"Plus the whole idea of making a record and touring on it is purely commerce and marketing. John Coltrane never did that. He went into the studio when he felt like he had something worth playing. To me it's ridiculous to stay in that paradigm, especially now that records aren't making so much money anymore. This is a chance to develop the music live; every day of these three short tours, it will still be new and exciting. It's about creating an energy, a feeling, and to me it's irrelevant what the form is. It could be somebody's pop song or a Beethoven sonata. Whatever it takes to get to that place where you're vibrating, or channeling, that's what it's about."