The three albums released in Medeski, Martin & Wood's Radiolarians series during 2008 and 2009 are arguably the most relaxed, fluid, and spontaneously creative recordings they have issued thus far in their 18-year career. For these records, the trio members changed the manner in which they record. They took short writing retreats, came up with ideas, went on the road and only played the new material, and finally went into the studio to record it. All three recordings are filled with a nearly limitless range of music from funk and jazz to classical and ambient to New Orleans second-line R&B and gospel. All three are stellar examples of just how expansive and intuitive a keyboard, bass, and drum trio can be. Now comes Radiolarians: The Evolutionary Set, a gorgeously assembled box that contains two LPS, five CDs, and a DVD. For those who don’t already know, the Radiolarians series was named after a type of single-celled organism with a dazzlingly intricate exoskeleton, reflecting Billy Martin’s deep lifelong interest in biology and organisms. The trio was attracted to the drawings and research of German biologist Ernst Haeckel, who went a long way toward helping to validate Charles Darwin’s theories in the 19th century. The 12" by 12" box, like all of the previous CDs, is illustrated by him. Inside the box are the three individual Radiolarians CDs with a bonus track each -- all of them worth hearing and adding to the experience of the records themselves -- and a double 180-gram LP set consisting of ten tracks handpicked from them and arranged thematically. The first LP features more riff-oriented material (check the jams “Undone” and “Amber Gris” in particular), while the second one centers more around funkier pieces like “Walk Back” and more deliberately atmospheric material such as “Hidden Moon.” The sound of the individual LPs is utterly stunning.
Also included is a live CD containing only the material from the Radiolarians tours; the compositions are reflected in much more open and improvisational ways for 70 minutes. It’s almost worth the price of admission alone because it’s a stone killer. In keeping with MMW’s love of DJ culture, there is also a remix CD called Remixolarians containing ten tracks from Radiolarians; they are given full treatments by the likes of DJ Spooky, DJ Logic, Dan the Automator, Scotty Hard, Mister Rourke, Mutamassik, and DJ Olive, among others. Finally, the box contains the Fly in a Bottle DVD, a documentary film by Martin giving a laboratory-like look at MMW recording and creating the music in Radiolarians as well as live footage compiled from over a decade. It looks unflinchingly at the life of a band and the interconnected personas and relationships of its members. The music for “Amber Gris” is included as well, along with CW, a short experimental film also directed by Martin. For MMW fans, this certainly presents a bit of a dilemma, since many have plunked down the cash for either some or all of the individual Radiolarians releases. But if any box set is worth the investment in 2009, it’s this one, musically and aesthetically. While the set is being distributed and can be found through an array of retail shops, it can also be purchased directly through the band’s website.