Holy Hell! Combustication Turns 20

Holy Hell! Combustication Turns 20

Combustication lit a fire that’s very much still burning.

Combustication wasn’t the first recording by the jazz/jam trio Medeski Martin and Wood, nor was it their “breakthrough” album. The 1998 release was, however, their first for the storied Blue Note label as well as their first recorded collaboration with turntableist DJ Logic. And, 20 years later, it is a reminder that this band was an early avatar of how “jazz” might survive into the new century: with a combination of old-school danceability, collaboration with newer musical forms and an artful insistence on innovation.

While MMW’s superb 1993 release It’s a Jungle in Here had featured horn arrangements by the great downtown trumpet player Steven Bernstein, tying them back to “jazz” in some overt way, Combustication moves in the other direction, emphasizing the sonic possibilities in DJ Logic’s samples and witty contrasts. Rather than feeling like a funky jazz band that finally understood the power and creativity inherent in groove music full of jazz solos, MMW in 1998 seems more like a band that is exploring texture, mood and pure sound, creating music that is both more experimental and less intimidating than traditional jazz or traditional hip-hop.

“Church of Logic,” in an unassuming way, explains what the band is about. Drummer Billy Martin starts with brushes on snare as if this were a slippery jazz record, but he is met with scratching from DJ Logic, followed by Chris Wood’s throbbing electric bass—but a quiet, sneaky heartbeat rather than a dance track. John Medeski enters on B3 organ, spooky-toned and percussive, playing a simple pattern that doesn’t sound like a traditional jazz melody, but also not like a jazz organist playing a solo. From here, the four elements of the band interact, converse, shift in prominence as the layers of sound compete for your aural attention. Samples, Wurlitzer electric piano, scratching, funked out bass, increasingly groovy drumming, high keyboard shimmers, organ licks . . . you feast on the music without putting it in a box.

Other tracks embody this weird, wonderful willingness to just sound cool, to paint musical watercolors that still stand up to listening. “Nocturne” puts Wood’s electric bass in the foreground, playing a ringing arpeggio that allows the rest of the quartet to color in the sky, the trees and the clouds. More surprisingly, the cover of Sly Stone’s “Everyday People” is an impressionistic 6/8 shuffle that only hints at the hit tune, preferring instead to use spare acoustic bass and a whispering-brushes drum groove to set up Medeski’s pure-atmosphere organ version of the melody. It is a tour-de-force for organ fans, but not because the playing is fast or loud but because it uses all of the instrument’s expressive sonic elements: weird combinations of stops, whirring Leslie speaker variations and contrasts of various tones. “No Ke Ano Ahiahi” plays like a nightmare dirge, with an insistent but slow beat and eerie lead sounds that seem to come off of an island of mystery. There is almost nothing on these tracks that resembles jazz improvising, with hot musicians taking on the tune’s harmonic structure, chorus after chorus, with athletic, musical dazzle. Instead, the band seeks to put your head in a place and then keep it there, fascinated.

Not that every Combustication track is mainly atmosphere. Tunes that move your ass punctuate the program, but they are more than tasty organ funk. “Sugar Craft” is about as grooving as a tune can get, with its New Orleans-y drum pocket and the acoustic bass plunking a blues lick over one sweet chord. But Medeski’s organ melody and swelling chords share the spotlight with Logic’s smirking samples and squiggling jots and tittles. “Coconut Boogaloo” may be the tune that sounds most classically like MMW, with a snappy melody on organ, Medeski’s left hand playing a Clavinet in accompaniment (then later soloing on Wurlitzer electric piano), all while the rhythm section bobs and funks in exemplary fashion, leaving enough silence between the notes to pull you into sonic suspense. “Just Like I Pictured It” sets up a slow funk feeling and allows Medeski to ride over it on both organ and grand piano. “Hey-Hee-Hi-Ho” is the high point for Martin, whose stuttering, rattling drum patterns here seem both danceable and complex, locking in with the bass so seductively that you barely realize how wonderfully weird Medeski’s playing is at times.

Perhaps Combustication is at its best—naturally—when it combines these two sensibilities. “Start-Stop,” for example, begins with a clatter of percussion (from all the musicians, each in their way), develops an irresistible groove, then breaks down into a much slower and more fragmented shuffle over which DJ Logic repeats a strange, singing cry. “Hypnotized” is the longest track, and it uses all the of the band’s considerable tools: keyboard layers of atmosphere, repeated bass patterns, whooshing samples from the turntables, hip-swaying funk and strange harmonic contrasts—but also silence, as the track winds down to nothing about five minutes in and then remains hushed for two full minutes before re-emerging as a disquieting organ solo that develops into surging, noisy free jazz with a punk feeling, drums bashing and bass running at a sprint, atonal improvising and, finally, a syncopated rock feeling.

This is the album’s last track, and it demonstrates the range and daring of Medeski Martin and Wood as they threw themselves into the mature portion of their career. Recording for a major label, they didn’t tone down their sense of experimentation but instead ratcheted it up. They gave their audience just enough of what they craved from the band—impossibly delicious groove music—while leavening it with every other kind of creativity they were attracted to. And so much of that play, that willingness to take risks, straddled styles of music that weren’t obviously linked in 1998. MMW was discovering an intersection of free improvising, soundtrack atmosphere, hip-hop and jazz, but they made the daring delicious for the audience. In the hands of this band, the music locked together as one.

The track you might just listen to on repeat is “Latin Shuffle,” which begins as free-wheeling modern piano jazz over a Latin feel, but then morphs into driving organ swing, seamlessly demonstrating how two musical cousins are related at a basic level. It’s a simple lesson perhaps, that music is music and the divisions between styles are usually artificial (at least in the hands of master musicians), but this was a lesson that much of the world was still learning in 1998. Jazz hadn’t quite passed out of its Traditionalists vs. Avant-Gardists battle yet, and it certainly hadn’t yet figured out how to work with hip-hop in authentic and natural ways.

Combustication was on the case, showing the path. And it was doing so effortlessly, organically, without didactic difficulty. If you just wanted to dig the sounds and dance, MMW and DJ Logic had you covered. But if you wanted to think hard on where the music might be going, well, here was a pretty good road map. And 20 years later not only is Medeski Martin and Wood still out there crossing boundaries with abandon, but the great bulk of the most important “jazz” musicians are dabbling in hip-hop and noise, tradition and divergence, atmosphere and colorful arrangement.

Combustication lit a fire that’s very much still burning.

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