In the music industry's contemporary model, an artist writes and records new material, the label releases it and the artist tours to publicize the new work and stimulate album sales. With few exceptions, that's been the formula for the past six decades of popular music marketing.
But we're seven and a half years into a new millennium, technology is lapping itself on a daily basis and there is a strong urge to do something different on every level. That was the feeling among the members of Jazz combo Medeski Martin & Wood when they began thinking about their next few releases.
"It came to us at the end of last year as an idea," says keyboardist John Medeski from the band's Kingston, New York studio. "We were thinking about how to keep things fresh and interesting for us so we keep growing and enjoying."
That's when they conceived of writing skeletal new material, performing it in front of audiences that had never heard it before and then returning immediately to the studio to record it. In other words, completely upend the sacred process that has underpinned the music industry since the mid-'50s.
"The old way doesn't necessarily work or matter anymore," says Medeski. "These days, with business the way it is, there's no one way to do it.
For us, it's mainly about the music and that's the real reason for anything we do."
The trio quickly expanded the idea across three releases and then increased the scope even further by envisioning a box set that would include the three original discs, augmented with additional unreleased material and a DVD of some of the original live performances. At that point, MMW knew everything about the project except what to call it. That's when drummer Billy Martin came across a book of drawings detailing microscopic creatures called radiolarians, amoeboid protozoa that create intricate exoskeletons for themselves.
"They look like they're from outer space," says Medeski of the inspiration for the series' moniker. "In our minds, we have this concept of a sort of re-evolution in doing this musical series and there's something strangely primitive and evolutionary about these drawings. The images are so beautiful. It's almost kind of abstract the way we related to it. It just looked and felt like what we were doing."
With the concept fully formed, MMW started the process of writing material for their initial series of concerts. Although the end result was going to arrive in a very different manner, the trio's writing sessions evolved in a familiar fashion.
"It's all kind of the same," says Medeski. "Writing for us is varied. When we write together, it's a certain thing. You find a certain impulse, you turn that into a musical idea and take that musical idea and do whatever it needs. We keep playing things over and over and trying different things, talking about them. That's how we've been doing it for this one."
Writing sketches with room for improvisation and development, each member of the trio brought in individual compositions. They tweaked the material as a band then took it out earlier this year on the first set of dates. Just weeks ago, MMW took those songs into the studio and recorded the first Radiolarian disc in the series, tentatively slated for release (on MMW's own Indirecto label) in September or October.
Now the trio's attention shifts to the material for the second album in the series, which Medeski says he and the band would like to see released by the end of the year, but will likely come out early in 2009. These new songs, written more in collaboration, are largely completed and ready for the next round of performances.
"We spent the whole last week working out all the new stuff," he says. "It's how we're like a Jazz band; the tunes are skeletons and then we flesh them out live and there's a lot of space for improvisation. The way it's not like a Jazz band is that they're not just head charts: 'Play the melody, blow on the chord changes then play the melody again.' It's not like that. We mess around with different ways of structuring. That's how we keep it fun. We have a ton of new stuff and we also leave some space to spontaneously compose things, in the spirit of the evening."
Although the Radiolarian material is being conceived and executed in the same general way, Medeski is quick to point out that each album will be a distinct stylistic entity within the broader series.
"On this stuff, there's a lot more acoustic piano," says Medeski. "I play some electric things but there's no B3 organ for this series. There's a Wurlitzer organ that I'm playing through a Leslie, and there's some other electric keyboards but the piano is the focal point. And it's more Chamber music-like, I guess. But there's some real rocking stuff, too. It's inevitable with us."
MMW considered recording the shows and compiling the performances into the actual albums (shows are filmed to provide content for the eventual DVD) but ultimately they decided to let the shows remain working rehearsals for the material and flesh it out in the studio. Even so, live recordings of the actual shows will likely be arranged in order to accrue additional audio material for the box set.
"We might want some live stuff for the box set because the live versions will be very different than the studio (ones)," says Medeski. "We've done it every possible way. Some of our records, some of the songs we have been playing on the road, other records we totally created the music in the studio and then went out and played it. Either way, our music evolves and changes and we push it and expand it all the time. In this case, every night is a little different."
The biggest difference in each night's performance will literally be each night's audience. Medeski says he, Martin and bassist Chris Wood are always tapping into the crowd's vibe and radiating it back through their performance.
"When we're inspired and really getting there through the music, I feel like the audience feels it," says Medeski. "For us, it's not about the hits. If we're playing the same old tunes, people aren't going to be feeling it. That's one of the reasons we're doing this."
MEDESKI MARTIN AND WOOD plays the Madison Theater Thursday. Buy tickets, check out performance times and find nearby bars and restaurants here.