Medeski Martin and Wood in the College of Saint Rose’s Massry Theater? Immediately that sounds like a bad fit. MMW typically draws a rowdy jam-band crowd that likes to dance all over the aisles. The Massry is an acoustically sensitive hall that works best with a highly attentive audience. Saturday night, MMW’s acoustic show turned out to be perfectly appropriate for the venue, the gentle jazz jams creating the electric excitement their audience expects.
It’s best not to dissect the full trio sound into three individuals, but keyboardist John Medeski, who spent the night on a grand piano — the key qualifier for the night’s “acoustic” label — is the clear front man. His back to the audience but his fingers visible, he held down the melody for the night and took up 90 percent of the soloing.
The group is touring around their latest release, “Free Magic,” an acoustic album capturing performances from their 2007 acoustic tour, which drummer Billy Martin said commemorates their beginnings 20-plus years ago.
Martin and bassist Chris Wood spent much of the night locked into each other, giving Medeski little pressure beyond feeding occasional chords with his left hand and staying high above the fray with his right.
Martin is an ultra soft drummer and rarely lifts his sticks more than a few centimeters over the snare. He sketches, or mumbles, his fills. With Wood pronunciating simple bass lines, they create a harmonic, inseparable rhythm.
There’s not a lot of melody in their experimental improv. More than once you couldn’t find the place to tap your foot — Martin at one point used plastic clothes hangers as maracas, and several times they ventured deep into spacey exotic textures of sound with no apparent goal but to create a mysterious mood. But most of the night was intense and danceable, though protocol appropriately called for staying in your seat.
The trio covered a sentimental “Suspicious Minds,” made famous by Elvis Presley, and took their time unraveling every inch of what we thought was a simple song.
They played a long — long and short for them is about a 15-minute tune — blues tune from their latest release, which worked well. These three guys know each other as much as any trio that has ever played together, jazz or rock. Jazz trios back in the day would get together for an album or two, but MMW is working on 20 albums and 20 years, and it shows in virtually everything they do. For example, Wood seemed to get to the spot Medeski was heading before Medeski knew his own endpoint, or so it seemed, and likewise for Martin. They make it look very easy, as in, why doesn’t everyone just play like them?
They played several swing tunes during the second set. Well, they came close to swinging. Medeski banged syncopated chords with a Thelonious Monk-type feel, but the rhythm section always refused to give in completely to a traditional swing, instead playing their standard funk feel, staying stubbornly in the land of jam-band, toggling between bop and funk. They sometimes fell into a New Orleans-like stomp as well which was very cool to hear them do.
For three guys who play soft and subtle, they can entertain. And the Massry served them well, picking up their soft and understated nuances and often bringing us in close to join them in their intimate world.