Two trios. Two recordings. Two seemingly different schools of jazz intent. Yet what bonds new albums by Pat Metheny and Medeski Martin & Wood is their mutual lightness. There is accomplished group interplay throughout both records and a durable ensemble spirit that instrumental combos – whether they favor jazz or not – simply cannot function without. But listen close to these grooves and you’ll discover a disarming, if not altogether surprising level of animation.
For guitar star Metheny, Day Trip represents a further evolution of his take on the trio format. Discounting a 1975 debut album, Bright Size Life, most of Metheny’s trio works have been with esteemed jazz elders such as Dave Holland, Roy Haynes, Charlie Haden and Billy Higgins. 1999’s Trio 99>00 (and the subsequent Trio Live) offered generational equals like Bill Stewart and Larry Grenadier and a tone that was more in line with the broad lyricism of the fusion savvy Pat Metheny Group.
The players get younger and the sound gets sweeter on Day Trip. Teamed now with bass celebrity Christian McBride and current PMG drummer Antonio Sanchez, Metheny offers one of his most streamlined efforts. That might come as a surprise to those who saw the trio in action last November in Louisville, where the dimension of its repertoire and the dynamics of its playing were considerably broader.
Day Trip is a leaner, sharper, quieter and ultimately safer affair. While tunes like Let’s Move recall the faster and slightly cloudier sway of Bright Size Life, Metheny mostly plays with the kind of clean lyricism he could probably summon in his sleep. But when he wraps it around a more engaging melody, like the wide, looping blues groove of When We Were Free (which McBride keeps in simple, soulful motion) or the jagged The Red One (where Metheny briefly gets rockish and encroaches on the tart electric turf usually associated with John Scofield), Day Trip becomes a swiftly paced jaunt..
Even the thematically dark Is This America? (Katrina 2005) brushes off any suggestion of harshness or hurt. Like much of Day Trip, it’s a soulful but studied affirmation.
Jam band Medeski Martin & Wood, a unit that knows how to weave a seriously terse and funky groove, switches its mood mightily on Let’s Go Everywhere. This is a children’s record by definition with a slightly off-center and darkly cartoonish feel. In other words, it’s more Tom Waits than Tom & Jerry.
Let’s Go Everywhere is also the first MMW album to work extensively with vocals. Tim Ingham leads the album’s title track, a funny, funky variation of the Johnny Cash hit I’ve Been Everywhere (“We’ll go to Bombay, Tapei, Mandalay, Bora Bora, Deauville, Louisville, Whoville, Glocca Morra”). Hey, keyboardist John Medeski was born in Louisville, so the Kentucky reference is apt. Bassist Chris Wood’s brother, singer Oliver Wood, leads the New Orleans charge of The Train Song while Pirates Don’t Take Baths (again with Ingham) may be the first ode to personal hygiene set to barroom piano.
The kicker, though, is Where’s the Music? Here, the MMW trio serves up its trademark organ-fueled funk in musical chairs fashion. The music stops and kids scream for the groove to return. And for as much as a 40 minute CD will allow, it always does.