For pianist/multi-keyboardist John Medeski’s 51st birthday, here’s a feature piece I wrote about him for Jazziz in the May 2013 issue, on the occasion of his solo recording, A Different Time.
When pianist John Medeski performs solo, an increasingly frequent occurrence in recent years, his usual path is similar to an hour-long, YouTube-documented recital that he uncorked last January at the Lily Pad, in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Attired in a wool cap, black jeans and an untucked dark-purple shirt, sleeves rolled, Medeski begins the performance with an invocational, neo-gospel refrain, building the intensity with rolling block chords. He eventually resolves with a stark repeated cluster in the piano’s lower depths, then counterpoints with a repetitive treble vamp, over which he plays a stately, impressionistic classical melody articulated by the left hand with supreme control. Around the 10th minute, he morphs into a spiky line that seems inspired by Cecil Taylor, then spins out a long improvisation around the intervals that gradually transforms into a phantasmagoric “Giant Steps,” executed with Taylorian turbulence and precision. This transitions into a contrapuntal, stride-like rendering of Thelonious Monk’s “Evidence.” Medeski plays an achingly beautiful original, “Luz Marina,” launches an intense tribal melody blown on an elongated wooden flute, tosses off dramatic Lisztian flourishes, sets up a drone that undulates as he plays treble-register lines while simultaneously placing objects on the piano’s innards. The drone remains as he develops the theme on the thus-prepared strings, before a concluding statement on melodica. Medeski winds down the thrilling performance with a grooving blues.
“That’s pretty indicative of what happens,” Medeski confirmed in early March at the Tribeca offices of Medeski, Martin & Wood, the collective trio with which, since 1991, he has famously played acoustic piano, Hammond organ, mellotron, clavinet, synthesizers and other instruments. “I have a lot of influences. For me, the tunes are launching pads for some kind of exploration, creating different energies, a certain vibration and feeling. I might approach by starting with a pure sound and letting that lead the way. My palette, whatever I’ve studied, whatever I’m feeling, maybe the audience’s reaction, informs where it goes. I want to take people on a journey.”
Last fall, Medeski, 47, kept that notion in mind as he undertook his first solo recording over several days in the converted 19th-century church that houses Waterfront Studios in a village 30 miles south of Albany. “I practiced, learned some tunes and made a list,” he recounts. “I wanted to keep myself in a space of openness and freedom, and give myself time and space to create. I imagined I would do what I do when I play a solo-piano concert.”
The first portion of the sessions — during which Medeski, a Steinway artist, spent several hours on an instrument he hand-picked for the occasion, and another few hours on the studio’s 9-foot Steinway — produced something along those lines. “I had a record,” Medeski says. “It was a lot of stuff.” Then producer Henry Hirsch, who collects vintage pianos, offered his 1924 Gaveau, a French brand built in the pre-modern style. What resulted was the contents of A Different Time [OKeh] , a delicate recital that is the polar opposite of the florid tonal personality that he projects with MMW or in the showier sections of the YouTubed concert.
“We put some mikes on it, and I started playing,” Medeski says. “The sound of the instrument and the way I had to play directed me. It forced me to focus every second on controlling the touch. Certain pieces that had never worked for me on a regular piano, like maybe it’s too corny or something, seemed like, ‘Oh, I can really try this on this piano.’” He references “Waiting at the Gate,” which he wrote for a musical at 16, and the Willie Nelson tune “I’m Falling in Love Again.”
“When I listened to everything I’d done on the Gaveau, I realized that it had the most coherent vibe for a record,” Medeski says. “I loved the sound; it recorded better than the other pianos, at least during those couple of days. I can be really picky, take however many hours of stuff and whittle away what I don’t like, and then define a handful of good stuff. But this was easy, like, ‘This is it.’ At first, it was a little — I don‘t know what the word is — scary maybe, that this would be the record I’d put out, because it’s so meditative and gentle. But you know what? It is one of the many things that I do. It’s one aspect of me.
“The real preparation was not to have too many preconceived notions, use whatever came out best and sculpt a record. I had to have confidence that it would be OK.”
A few years ago, MMW, which had averaged some 200 gigs a year since forming in 1991, responded to circumscribed music-biz economics, demands of family and the burgeoning popularity of bassist Chris Wood’s Wood Brothers group by scaling back its collective activity, thereby giving its members more time to pursue individual interests.
For Medeski, this development provided an opportunity to do a fair amount of guest-star sidemanning, most recently addressing Hammond B3 and keyboards with Spectrum Road, a Vernon Reid-Jack Bruce brainchild on which Cindy Blackman plays drums. Medeski also played acoustic piano in John Zorn’s Nova Quartet (Kenny Wolleson on vibraphone, Trevor Dunn on bass, and Joey Baron on drums) on Nova Express, interpreting with panache Zorn’s “hard music with complex, contemporary heads,” inspired by the writings of William Burroughs. Also with Nova Quartet (augmented by harpist Carol Emanuel), he plays piano and organ on the consonant At the Gates of Paradise and the darker, kaleidoscopic A Vision in Blakelight, both comprising Zorn’s refractions of William Blake’s mystic visual-poetic ruminations. His piano and electronics contribute to the extreme sonic tapestry Zorn presents on another Burroughs homage, Interzone.
“Zorn is a force — incredible businessman, fantastic composer, great musician and he’s supported a lot of musicians,” Medeski says. “He made a choice not to get caught up being responsible to anyone but himself. That sort of independence was always important for me, and for Medeski, Martin & Wood. How do you do what you want, stay creative and keep the spirit alive? That’s been the goal always.”
Staying creative is one reason for Medeski’s decision to focus more on solo-piano performance, and, hence, to record A Different Time to serve “as a sort of calling card.”
Another reason, he adds, is in response to “feeling that I am somewhat pigeonholed or stereotyped by certain people” for his role in producing the groove-rich, skronky, high-octane sound that earned MMW its immense popularity in the jam-band world. Even though MMW has recently issued such CDs as the 2008 studio date Zaebos, a nuanced, pan-stylistic rendering of Zorn’s “Book of Angels” corpus, and Free Magic, culled from an all-acoustic tour in 2007, the “jam band” epithet still touches a nerve.
“We were out there before that scene happened, but somehow we fell into being associated with it although I don’t think we ever did anything too obvious,” Medeski says. “We figure things out, have it pegged, and then move on to the next thing. I’ve been feeling, ‘I guess I should do that now, too.’ Even while we were exploring what we started exploring 20 years ago in this all-consuming way, I always had a piano at home. I got known for a certain thing. But I love playing piano. I did it before anyone knew who I was or cared about anything I was doing. I missed doing it, so I’ve been doing it more the past few years.
“I also like to keep people on their toes. I don’t want anyone to think they have me figured out. I realized that during an interview in Germany. I thought, ‘Wow, maybe this is my own version of being rebellious,’ even though the music isn’t that — it’s just my own thing. ‘Hey, you think I’m just going to play some groovy, out shit? Actually I do this, too.’”
A Different Time not only is Medeski’s first solo-piano recording, but the first leader date on which he eschews the collective context. Indeed, in distinction to many prodigies whose skills blossom young, he has built a career around performing in situations that are not all about him.
MMW bassist Chris Wood opines that limitations stimulate Medeski’s creative juices. “We always joke that Billy is always ‘no,’ I am always ‘maybe’ and John is always ‘yeah, let’s do it,’” he says. “So when I start from scratch, like, ‘What do you think?’ he can get overwhelmed by all the possibilities because he’s such a talented musician. That carries to the stage sometimes, where if there’s any doubt about where we’re going, the best thing Billy and I can do is present an extremely clear idea that John can either obliterate by counteracting it or hopping on and nurturing it and making it into something.”
MMW drummer Billy Martin cites Medeski’s response when he and Wood suggested in 1991 that the trio take Medeski’s name. “John was the first to say, ‘No, it’s not about me, it’s not about you — it’s about all of us,’” Martin recalls. “So although we’ve gotten a lot out, I think that his really deep inner voice hasn’t been heard because he wants to do what’s right for the band. He’s an incredible piano player; this classical prodigy that he was as a child is still waiting to show his face. We didn’t develop that side of him as much as his electric side. That’s partly because he was really getting into the electronics, and also trying to find a way to speak in places we played that might have a horrible piano or no piano at all. I’ve always wondered, ‘When the hell are you going to do your own thing?’”
“I didn’t want to be a leader,” Medeski says. “I wanted to collaborate on every level. I felt that would be the most valuable thing for us to do musically and business-wise. Collaborating means being able to compromise. It takes longer to create music that way, with three people, but you end up with something you wouldn’t have come up with on your own.”
Asked to trace the source of his collective orientation, Medeski mentions to teen experiences in Fort Lauderdale, his hometown, and nearby Miami. He played classical recitals. He formed a point of view while making real-time bandstand decisions with big bands, on swinging jam sessions with world-class locals like Ira Sullivan and Dolph Castellano, in Latin bands and funk bands with horn sections, and in a plugged-in group called Emergency. Jaco Pastorius, whose brother-in-law was Emergency’s drummer, sat in occasionally, liked what he heard, and invited Medeski, then 16, to join him on tour, an offer that Medeski’s mother declined. While attending Boston’s New England Conservatory, Medeski continued to work steadily, most notably with Mister Jellybelly, a blues and jazz singer who introduced him to the nuances of the Hammond B3, but also with the eclectic soloists who populated the Either/Orchestra.
“I would always say yes to a gig, whatever it was, and figure out how to do it,” Medeski says. “I’ve always desired to be a supportive musician, and not just move my fingers around, press buttons and be a clogging force. Yeah, I can play certain stuff, but I don’t have to. Anybody I’ve played with, it’s never been, ‘Let me do my thing on top of this or in this,’ but ‘How can I add something that works within and is part of the whole?’ That’s how I’ve been able to play in situations that don’t traditionally have keyboardists, like in Afro-Peruvian music with Susana Baca or pedal-steel guys like the Campbell Brothers or Robert Randolph.
“Music is the creation of sound. Practicing in your room alone is important; you need that time to look deep inside yourself. But it’s also a language. It’s communicating. Communication involves someone other than you; if you’re just talking to yourself, you go crazy. You’ve got to see what its effect is when you put that sound out there and find that thing that happens when you play together, when you really interact.”
This dictum crystallized for Medeski during his first week in New York, where he and Wood took a two-bedroom apartment for $1,300 a month over a laundromat at Avenue A and 6th Street in 1991. “I went to a late-night jam session at the Blue Note that I’d call the night of the living dead,” he says. “There was a line of horn players who spewed whatever licks they’d been practicing, like a weird cut-and-paste of records I’d heard before, on top of the rhythm section. No interaction. It was the opposite of improvising. That turned me off the jazz scene, and I instantly gravitated to the Knitting Factory and the Downtown scene, where people were combining things and improvising — or not. Whatever it was, it felt vital and alive.”
While launching enduring relationships with musicians like Zorn and Marc Ribot, Medeski soon was in the rotation with hardcore jazz up-and-comers like Brad Mehldau and Geoff Keezer at the Top Of The Gate, a well-known piano room on Bleecker and Thompson, where he worked serial weeks in trio with Wood and a series of drummers, the last of whom was Martin. The connection was instant, and the rest, as they say, is history.
“Music has the ability to express everything,” Medeski says. “And I like to use it for a lot of things. It’s easy to hide behind what you know is hip. But this record is naked, pure music, pure feeling, purely in the moment. It’s free, in a way.”
As Wood surmises: “John is always searching for something that’s authentic, and sometimes it’s not so obvious what that is. As he gets older, he’s recognizing it, finding it in himself and in music. Now that he’s broken the ice, so to speak, I can’t wait to see what he comes up with next. With MMW, we never had any idea what we were going to do when it was time to make a new record. We just knew we weren’t going to do something we’ve already done. So I know John’s next solo record will probably be really different. Let’s hope he keeps spitting them out, because there are a lot of worlds he can get into.”
During the 1920s, Gaveau, a Paris-based manufacturer founded in 1847, produced a series of pianos with Art Deco cabinets, one of them the refurbished 1924 7-foot model with barely played original French hammers, new uncrossed strings, a wood soundboard, and original action, on which John Medeski created [i]A Different Time[i]. The design was based on the mid-19th-century principles of piano-making developed by Gaveau’s French competitors, Pleyel and Érard, both older companies that developed technology that is still incorporated in grand piano manufacture—in addition to routinizing the placement of pedals on the piano, Érard in 1821 patented the “double escapement” technology with a repetition lever that allows notes to be repeated more easily than in earlier single-action pianos, allowing double notes to be played [i]legatissimo[i] with ease. Lacking the rich harmonics of “modern” Steinway or Bösendorfer grands, they offered, as a tradeoff, more speed and lightness and clarity of sound. Camille Saint-Saëns played recitals on a Gaveau. Hector Villa-Lobos had one shipped to his home in Brazil.
“The pianos require a certain delicacy,” Medeski says. “If you hit them too hard, it won’t work; the sound is awful. So you really need to be in control.”
He referenced Frederic Chopin, whose instrument of choice was the similarly designed Pleyel, the popular model in late 19th century France. “Chopin taught that one must sing with the fingers. He thought modern pianos destroyed the touch. He’s quoted; ‘It makes no difference whether you tap the keys lightly or strike them more forcefully. The sound is always beautiful, and the ear asks for nothing more, for it’s under the spell of the full, rich sound.’ He also said: ‘On the resistant kind of piano, it is impossible to obtain the finer nuances of movement in the wrist and forearm, each finger moving in isolation.’
“I felt what it was that he liked about these little pianos. Your fingers are doing the singing. It’s pretty amazing when you play it, when you get into the physical creation of the music with the instrument — that connection with the instrument.”