On Heaven and Earth, a tasty concert recording cut at New York's Blue Note jazz club last May, the remarkably versed saxophonist James Carter takes the helm, even though a quartet of support players receive equal billing.
Together, they flirt with the abstract, run hot and cool with tempos and temperaments, and ultimately bow to tradition.
In contrast, Radiolarians III — the third and last of Medeski Martin & Wood's experimental album series in which compositions were written or arranged quickly, ironed out on tour and then promptly recorded in the studio — sports a vastly more combustible sound.
And just to make these journeys all the more curious, keyboardist John Medeski is a double-agent player on both recordings.
Heaven on Earth starts out almost as an MMW session, with Medeski's organ bleeps adding typically outer-space accents to fractured grooves and free-flavored jazz overtures. The melee is a setup for Django Reinhardt's Diminishing, and that's the first of the surprises. As the album progresses, Carter takes over with tenor sax skirmishes that can't help but summon the spirit of John Coltrane, while Medeski moves the groove into churchy soul territory.
From there, things settle somewhat. A 75-year-old chestnut, Street of Dreams, unleashes Carter's most sparkling and playful tenor lead, but Medeski puts the tune on ice with a sense of supreme soul wonderfully colored by omnipresent bassist Christian McBride and similarly studied rhythm by drummer Joey Baron, a player versed in explosive improvisatory interplay. Guitarist Adam Rogers similarly rides Heaven on Earth's waves with ease, meeting head-on its stylistic cunning while adding beautifully to the club setting's unmistakable intimacy.
Radiolarians III, as with all MMW sessions, loves to flirt with danger. On the spiritual Satan Your Kingdom Must Come Down, Medeski unplugs for a piano intro that blends Lennie Tristano's improvisatory daring, McCoy Tyner's beefy modal play and his own inherent playfulness. A distorted lead emerges that sounds like mutated, amplified acoustic bass figures by Chris Wood, but with MMW, who really knows? Underneath it all, Medeski's piano frolic sounds less like gospel and more like a barrelhouse rumble.
Later, Undone gets down to more familiar MMW turf with a layer of keyboard haze and a sweaty but altogether foreboding drum pattern that gathers steam before briefly spilling over into more uplifting rock 'n' roll.
Heaven and Earth is the sound of friends takings cues from tradition, whereas Radiolarians III turns the groove inward for a gospel, soul and jazz square-off that stands far more on muscle than ceremony.