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11.19.08

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Phaedra

Photograph by Danny Clinch
Lounge Act : The band takes a break.

The Recapitulation of Cool

Martin Medeski & Wood comes to Santa Cruz's Rio Theatre with a high-concept jazz performance.

By Eric Johnson


To get what's happening with the Medeski, Martin and Wood album/project Radiolarians, and the Viva La Evolution Tour that arrives in Santa Cruz tonight, we might first look to science.

A while ago, there was a T-shirt popular among certain UCSC biology students that bore this unlikely motto: Ontogeny Recapitulates Phylogeny. This is known as von Haeckel's theorum, named for one Ernst Haeckel, and it proposes that (quoting here from the New World Encyclopedia) "an individual organism's biological development (ontogeny) parallels in brief the entire evolutionary development of its species (phylogeny)."

While von Haeckel's theorem has been largely discredited "in absolute terms," op. cit., there is a fundamental truth to it that persists, and an undeniable elegance, which explains the presence of those T-shirts on campus back in the day when psychedelic drugs were popular. Because if such recapitulation is, in fact, part of the scientific order, then there is some kind of cosmic poetry at work in the universe. And that is just fucking awesome, right?

So: Radiolarians.

It seems that Herr Haeckel, in addition to his pioneering work in evoloutionary theory (he invented the term "ecology," among others), was fascinated with creatures called radiolaria: "a particular diverse grouping of amoeboid protozoa that produce intricate mineral skeletons." These creatures are biologically fascinating, too tiny and complex to be believed. And, again quoting (last time): "beyond their practical value to humans, the complex skeletons of the microscopic radiolarians are often very beautiful and symmetrical and add to the wonder of nature for people."

Haeckel was so taken with the beauty of the radiolaria, in fact, that he devoted much of his time to the creation of precise, intricate drawings of the critters, in their many hundreds of forms. And this is where Radiolarians, the album, comes in.

The drummer Billy Martin, after coming across Haeckel's Art Forms From the Ocean: The Radiolarian Atlas of 1862, became fascinated with the artist/scientist and with the whole big idea. "It was just something we were attracted to and somehow seemed to fit the feeling of the music and what we were trying to do," Wood says. The discovery sparked an idea.

After 18 years and 17 albums, the band decided to turn the whole recording/touring thing on its head. They were tired of the routine that required spending weeks or months in a studio, then a year on the road playing music they'd almost grown tired of. Instead, the band, famous for their improvisational genius, would go on the road, composing, as it were, at their gigs, and then go into the studio. Like the radiolaria, they would begin from the soft, living center of the live music experience, and let their songs organically develop the structures of what might be called ectoskeletons.

They imposed a rigorous regime on their experiment: three months of touring, one month recording and repeat. One year on the road, three albums.

Radiolarians 1, released in June, gives evidence that the idea has great merit. "First Light," the opener, begins with more than two minutes of ambient, liquid sound in a slow, soft crescendo that builds and transforms into a funky groove, morphing back into a trippy jam. Track 2, "Cloud Forms," showcases the band's passion for intense fusion. "Muchas Gracias" has a spiritual world-music sound, and "Professor Nohair" is a New Orleans-flavored piano-blues boogie start to finish.

There are 10 songs, each unique, each borrowing from a different stylistic species among the vastness available to contemporary musicians, each revealing the band's unique DNA. For me, the high point is the final track, "Hidden Moon," a moody, cinematic mini-epic that could serve as a soundtrack to an adventure in a gorgeous, mysterious place.

To my ears, there is something deliciously druggy to this album, and to much of this band's catalog, and I am not alone in this estimation. Medeski, Martin and Wood play pure, dead-serious jazz, and yet have developed a huge following among the contemporary Deadheads that follow jam-bands like String Cheese Incident and Tea Leaf Green and gather at places like Bonnaroo.

At the Rio Saturday, there's no telling what Medeski, Martin and Wood will come up with. But there's no doubt that it will be a singular experience, in strictly scientific terms.


MEDESKI, MARTIN AND WOOD perform 'Radiolarians' Wednesday, Nov. 19, at 8pm at the Rio Theatre, 1205 Soquel Ave., Santa Cruz. Tickets are $25, available at Streetlight Records and www.ticketweb.com.


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