Last Wednesday, November 9th was a day I’d been looking forward to for quite some time. Medeski Martin and Wood were playing The Orange Peel in Asheville and the cultural getaway was long overdue. This would be my fourth MMW concert as I always enjoy their eclectic live improvisations. Unfortunately, I couldn’t help but feel a little disconnected with the band on this tour.

It certainly wasn’t the company. I’d asked my good friends Steve Marshall, along with Steve Reece and his girlfriend Tanya to make the trip with me. We left out Johnson City on a cloudy, warm autumn afternoon, made the drive over the mountain and enjoyed a great dinner at Bistro 1896 in Downtown Asheville.

Over a wonderful almond seared trout and a bottle Trapiche malbec, working up to the show talking about music and sharing warm and enduring conversation.

We had front row access too. We arrived about an hour early and I couldn’t help admire the vintage keyboards onstage including a Hammond organ, a mellotron, a fifty–four note Fender Rhodes, a clavinet and a grand piano. John Medeski never plays anything digital and his affinity for retro keyboards blended with his sublime technique makes for an awesome appreciation (and envy) for these classic keyboard instruments.

The crowd was great too. Several fans had driven from Raleigh the night before and other loyal fans were claiming territory next to the stage in this wonderful auditorium. By the time the show began at 9pm, we estimated 600 or more were in attendance.

The trio appeared from behind the curtain announcing the first set was selected online by the audience and Billy Martin immediately settled himself into a table of percussion instruments. The music that ensued dissolved into an abstract overture of cymbals, shakers and bells that collided with random notes from bassist Chris Woods and a flurry of sounds shrieks conjured up by Medeski.

Exposure to abstract jazz is not a foreign dish. After all, I’ve been a jazz fan for decades and although I’m no Ornette Coleman fan, I understand the genre and Medeski Martin and Wood have always reeled from formative fusion to long improvisational epics. In fact, their website refers to their current soundscapes with the phrase “avant-noise.”

The opening set was a psychedelic jam with little form or function. There were occasional melodic connections with the audience as memorable themes surfaced for the audience, but for the first hour, the moments seemed like prolonged conversations with little clarity. In fact, there was a distinct impression their audience was paying little attention at all to their elitist fusion adventures. There were several moments that the crowd was louder than the band, lost in their own revery.

After a long intermission, the second set began with occasional unity, but it quickly regressed into prolonged, awkward moments of indecision as the band seemed to stretch for structure. Medeski was lost in his music, orating his solos by lip-synching his melodies and his most intriguing moments were his blinding forays on the piano with his back turned. Moments playing with the tape loops on the Mellotron were intriguing, but his work on organ and clavinet seemed muddled by his analog processors that distorted and reshaped the sounds.

The band played til well after midnight and were humble and approachable enough to hang out by the merch table to sign autographs. I was tired and ready to make the hour-long trip back to East Tennessee. Perhaps it was the wine and perhaps it was audible overload, but the show seemed a bit lofty for me this year.

That doesn’t mean, I won’t see them again.

After all, each performance has left a distint impression in my hall of concert memories. Perhaps this abstraction will lead me to future revelations.

For now, I’ll say that I would have loved to heard John Scofield perform with the band. On the way over to the show, Steve Marshall had just received the new album that features Scofield called “In Case the World Changes Its Mind” and there’s something compelling in this new project. Most striking is the melody and structure that Scofield brings to the band. It’s still spinning in my CD player and thankfully, I still feel connected.

Below are a few iPhone videos from center stage.