- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 25, 2003

Twelve years ago, when Medeski, Martin and Wood first started playing gigs outside of New York City, they made a conscious choice about the kind of places they wanted to play.

“We said, ‘Let’s go play where young people are,’ ” recalls keyboardist John Medeski. ” ‘I’m sure there’s going to be young people that are sick of the radio, sick of the MTV format and the pop thing, and are really hoping for something a little more creative.’ ”

So they skipped the traditional jazz clubs and booked gigs in places like the District’s 9:30 Club, where they will be again Saturday night.

The choice paid off in more ways than one. What began as something that they hoped would help give them a small following in each city, and allow them to keep playing their music, has mushroomed into sellout crowds in large rock venues all over the country.

Mr. Medeski also feels they gained creatively: “We found that that niche ended up being much more exciting and much more useful in terms of us developing our music. There was a real openness to energy as opposed to notes.”

Energy is a very important part of the music that Medeski, Martin and Wood play. It is also a common thread among the band’s fans. Their fan base is a diverse group that includes those who love avant-garde jazz, hip-hop, jam band, dance music, funk, and lounge sounds.

“I don’t know if I would call us ‘jazz,’ ” says Mr. Medeski. “But I do appreciate that, as opposed to other things. I feel we keep that spirit alive, which is to me the most important thing of any music. It’s not the style. It’s the spirit. That’s what music is, it’s the language of the human spirit.”

For Medeski, Martin and Wood, the key to that spirit is the opportunity to improvise. All three band members got their main training in jazz, in institutions like the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston (where Mr. Medeski and Mr. Wood took classes and private lessons) and the Manhattan School of Music (where Mr. Martin spent some time), and in touring bands headed by the likes of Chuck Mangione, Dave Holland, Dewey Redman, and John Zorn.

But when they started playing together in the early ‘90s, they also started looking outside of traditional jazz styles. “We just felt, especially after hip-hop kind of came around,” Mr. Medeski says, “that there was definitely much more to draw from that was suitable to jazz-like improvisation.”

Draw is what they do. When the trio takes the stage, it is almost impossible to predict which groove they will get on and where it will take them. It may have a funky backbeat, a free jazz howl, or grunge groove. Or it may have all three combined. Each band member has many different ideas to offer and the range is growing larger.

“The problem for us is that we’re always working on so many different things at any time,” Mr. Medeski says. For example, Mr. Medeski will be on tour this December with gospel legends the Blind Boys of Alabama; Mr. Martin, the drummer, has started his own experimental percussion-recording label; and Mr. Wood has recently played his bass with Stanton Moore, Bob Moses, and Karl Denson.

• • •

Spirit and energy can come in many styles of music. The traditional bluegrass band Dry Branch Fire Squad is another group that is energized by the spirit of their musical style. For more than 25 years and 15 albums, the band has lovingly cultivated old-time and traditional bluegrass music. Again this year at the Birchmere, the day after Thanksgiving will find them sharing traditions, and the stage, with Washington bluegrass favorites Seldom Scene.

Founder-singer-mandolinist Ron Thomason loves bringing this music to life.

“I really like old-time music and real traditional bluegrass music,” says Mr. Thomason in his Virginia drawl, “but I always keep in mind the fact, you know, it wasn’t ‘old-time’ when they started doing it. Traditional bluegrass music wasn’t traditional when they started. It was quite a break from the mold.”

With that in mind, the band plays ancient folk ballads, bluegrass classics, ‘60s political folk songs, and band-member originals all with the same joy and excitement of something brand new.

One of the highlights of a Dry Branch Fire Squad performance is their heartfelt singing of traditional bluegrass gospel. To Mr. Thomason, you don’t have to be a believer to appreciate this music.

“Really good music with good rhythm or tunes kind of transcends the religious aspect,” says Mr. Thomason. “It’s good music; just accept it for that or the experience it creates. You don’t have to be religious, you just kind of get into the feeling of those things.”

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