After 17 years, nine studio albums and countless tours, Medeski, Martin and Wood are, in a sense, a band without a country. And they couldn’t be happier.
Dedicated to what keyboardist John Medeski calls “the spirit of jazz” through a fierce devotion to improvisation, the trio nevertheless has struggled to find a place within the jazz community -- despite having recorded with established players like John Scofield and signing with iconic label Blue Note in 1998.
“We never felt comfortable in jazz clubs,” Medeski said of the band’s early days, which began in rock clubs and coffee shops. “Because we knew the jazz audience is . . . looking to hear stuff that sounds like what they’ve heard. The first time we got together we knew . . . this is something that’s our own. This feels current, it’s not like we’re regurgitating something that happened 30 years ago.”
Now the trio, which performs at the El Rey Theatre today, is planning to embark on a new stage of an already distinguished career, leaving its label days behind and releasing three albums in one year on its own imprint.
“It’s not really the smartest business move from a record company’s standpoint,” Medeski laughed, remarking on how unlikely such an undertaking would be had the band re-upped with a label. “But I gotta tell you, [the record industry hasn’t] been doing it right.”
That musicians with a grass-roots fan base would go out on their own isn’t necessarily breaking news in this post-Radiohead climate, but what is notable is their recording process for these albums, which flips the standard release model on its head.
Instead of recording an album and promoting it on tour, the band sketches out rough ideas in rehearsal then fleshes them out on the road. Those songs are then taken into the studio and the process starts all over again with a new batch of songs and another tour.
The first installment, “Radiolarians 1,” was released in September. Volume 2 was just recorded, and tonight’s show at the El Rey marks the final chapter of the three-part experiment, with the songs-in-progress to be eventually released as “Radiolarians 3.”
“To us it’s about creating this energy where we’re able to improvise and we’re excited, so that’s sort of part of the inspiration,” Medeski said, adding that audiences have been receptive. “We’re not like a pop band where people come to hear our greatest hits.”
So far the “Radiolarians” recordings are far from what could be considered pop but are consistent with the band’s stylistic alchemy, with Medeski’s keyboards at various instances recalling a demented carnival organ, a wah-pedaled electric guitar or even a straight acoustic piano steeped with New Orleans tradition on “Professor Nohair.”
Behind him drummer Billy Martin glides among hip-hop, Latin and world rhythms, while bassist Chris Wood veers from space-rock fuzz on “Cloud Wars” to a percussive upright-bass workout on “Rolling Son.”
In recent years, the band’s reputation for virtuosic playing has won them something of an unexpected fan base.
“Phish started playing one of our CDs back in the mid-'90s . . . as like intermission music or something, and a small percentage of their crowd got turned onto our music,” Wood said. “It was very surreal for us because we were playing things and thinking that our influences were Sun Ra, [Charles] Mingus and Sly Stone and a lot of people out there are thinking Trey [Anastasio].”
After releasing an album designed specifically to challenge those listeners, 2000’s “The Dropper,” a murky, abrasive record that earned strong reviews, the band grew more accepting of their accidental audience with frequent performances at patchouli-friendly festivals like Bonnaroo and Jam Cruise. But Martin bristles at being lumped into that scene.
Though the jam-band crowd has supported the trio through stylistic shifts spanning atmospheric free jazz (“Farmer’s Reserve”) to a recent children’s album (“Let’s Go Everywhere”), the group feels no obligation to serve them.
“Our general attitude is we’re going to do what we want to do because that’s the only way we can play together and feel good about what we’re doing, to keep pushing the boundaries,” Martin said. “And if we chase the jam-banders away, that’s just fine with us.”
Barton is a Times staff writer.