It's hard to believe that after more than two decades together playing in all sorts of sonic configurations, Medeski, Martin & Wood haven't released an acoustic trio album since 2000's Tonic. Free Magic remedies that. The set was recorded during their 2007 acoustic tour. There are five tunes in this hour-plus set; four are originals. Chris Wood's "Doppler" (a studio version appeared on 20)commences as a rhythmic improv with Billy Martin playing balafon (an African cousin to the xylophone) with John Medeski on a toy piano and a melodica, and Wood bowing his upright. The pace gradually increases before a rhythmically repetitive motif introduces itself. After vamping on for a minute, the track shifts gears and becomes a jumping, funky, soul-jazz piano trio tune that suggests, in equal parts, the Impulse-era trios of Ahmad Jamal, and Les McCann's and Ramsey Lewis' mid-'60s groove fests. "Blues for Another Day" begins as a muscular improvisation that suggests the harmonic nuances of Jaki Byard and the large block-chord architectures of Andrew Hill before it just stops. It restarts as a shimmering, droning blues that builds in intensity; Wood's 3/4 walking on the riff asserts force. Medeski's bright gospel chops intersperse with hard bop as Martin double-, then triple-times the band, with constant motion on the ride cymbal. While the prepared piano in the title track ushers in a percussion improv -- even Wood's bass feels played like a drum -- it eventually gives way to "Ballade in C Minor, 'Vergessene Seelen'," that evokes the feeling of an Asian folk tune before Wood's Hofner violin bass offers greater contrast, alternating Middle Eastern scalar and Western rock figures. Martin's shuffle pushes him along in assent and Medeski accents the spaces. "Where's Sly" is pure jazz piano magic that moves through various labyrinthine corridors of harmonic dialogue via lyric and rhythmic invention to become its own post-bop move. The closer is a hard-swinging medley of Charles Mingus' "Nostalgia in Times Square" and Sun Ra's "Angel Race." MMW build a solid bridge between the tunes with a Latin groove, making them natural hard-bopping companions in the vanguard. Free Magic is more than just another listing in the MMW's CV; it's a document which reveals that at the heart of all the electronically driven funk, groove, and experimentation, these cats are all superior jazz musicians who not only understand the history and vocabulary of the piano trio, but also move it forward into startling new territory.
AllMusic Review by Thom Jurek