Music News & Reviews

Critic's pick: MSMW (Medeski Scofield Martin & Wood), 'In Case the World Changes Its Mind'

Over the course of the 13 minutes it takes to navigate through Hanuman, the tour de force manifesto from its powerhouse live recording In Case the World Changes Its Mind, the tag team of John Medeski and John Scofield keenly defines the stylistic boundaries of its jazz-infused jam band music. Then the full quartet they co-lead with Chris Wood and Billy Martin promptly lays waste to them.

The tune enters with Medeski's arsenal of keyboard accents that sound as if they were flown in from the outer cosmos. Guitar great Scofield — and, to a lesser extent, percussionist/drummer Martin — color the shape-shifting ambience in a way that recalls Jerry Garcia's exit lines from the Grateful Dead's onstage improv indulgences. In short, lyricism meets the abstract. Then everything shifts again.

The keyboards turn vividly psychedelic in a way that suggests Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd. Then Scofield lets loose with leads that embrace a fusion-flavored melody balanced by the wild, wiry tone that has long made him one of contemporary jazz's most tasteful but resourceful thrill-seekers. The ball gets passed back to Medeski one last time for a Moog-like keyboard ambush that sounds as if it was blown through a reed of a synthesized oboe.

No wonder the full quartet eases into something more familiar — a cover of Amazing Grace that is both churchy and squeamish — once Hanuman lands back on earth.

In Case the World Changes Its Mind is loaded with such moments that balance the earthy (a version of the New Orleans funk staple Tootie Ma Is a Big Fine Thing that conjures a sweaty playfulness long before the tune's familiar chorus chimes in) with the otherworldly (the jagged Miles Behind that, true to its title, summons the electric fire of Miles Davis' early-'70s fusion adventures).

Mostly, though, the album is a robust performance testament to a cross-generational, cross-stylistic mash-up that reflects a potent creative chemistry. Admittedly, Medeski, bassist Wood and Martin have been toying with this formula for some time. As a trio, they have been champions of jam-band crowds for more than 15 years, yet they flirt regularly and restlessly with the avant-garde.

Scofield, alternately, has been a wildly versed jazz guitarist since the '70s, but he sounds equally at home as part of MSMW's collapsible groove, shown off exquisitely on the new album's chunky reading of Little Walter Rides Again.

In Case the World Changes Its Mind, ultimately, is the grand payoff of the union. It's the sound that ensues when a master jazzman matches wits with younger but equally crafty mavericks to fire up a groove fit for all ages.