By Ashley Zimmerman
By Dana Krangel
By John Hood
By Ashley Zimmerman
By David Von Bader
By Sayre Berman
By Steve Brennan
By Ashley Zimmerman
Keyboardist John Medeski is the melodic acrobatic of jazz trio Medeski, Martin, and Wood. Listening to his fingers pirouette across his array of ivoried instruments -- piano, Hammond organ, Fender Rhodes, clavinet, melodica, Wurlitzer -- is an auditory workout. Medeski can jackhammer his keys with percussive stabs, lean into prolonged wails of blues-soaked soul, or teeter somewhere between the two, throwing off shades and emotions like sparks off a flame. With loose-limbed drummer Billy Martin snapping off breakbeats and shuffles on the kit and Chris Wood unrolling hefty lines on upright bass, the NYC-based group is one of the most consistently unpredictable and thrilling live acts on the international stage, embodying the true, innovative spirit of jazz music. Medeski spoke with New Times via cell phone on the road between New York and Boston.
Q: So you know these parts pretty well, huh?
A: I spent my whole childhood in Fort Lauderdale. I had a great time, but it was a little different then. The beach hadn't been all fixed up, and spring break was still going on. It was a wild place with a great live music scene. The talent was incredible. All sorts of different stuff -- the version of jazz here was like nowhere else. Jaco Pastorius and Randy Benson, this great old guitar player, and Carl Pacillo -- he's still playing. When I was in high school, I got to play with all these guys. It had a whole different feel, the Florida feel.
Q: It's not really like that now.
A: It's the nature of the music business. The club owners started losing money. They're cheap, so they don't want bands; they want DJs. It takes effort to keep live music going, and a lot of people don't wanna do it.
Q: You gotta give it up to the guys who put on live music even though they're not making any money.
A: None of us are, really... But you do it because you have to. We do fairly well, but that's because we travel a lot. Doing it in the same town is tough. Nobody wants to hear the same band doing the same thing night after night.
Q: All that traveling puts you guys close to the top of the jam-band heap, even though you've stayed outside of it.
A: That scene wasn't around when we started. It sort of developed as we were out there. In terms of that kind of stuff, the only bands were Widespread Panic and Phish, but we hadn't heard any of that stuff. Phish came to one of our gigs in New York City, and we were like, "Uh, nice to meet you." Then we heard they had sold out Madison Square Garden three nights in a row. We learned about those bands as we went out, and the jam-band scene blossomed while we were out there.
Q: For a "scene," the bands don't have that much in common. The name describes the fans more than the bands.
A: The term was created by the audience. Nobody said, "We're a jam band!" The only thing the bands have in common is that they blend different music. Bluegrass and punk, jazz and funk, people just playing what they feel. My only complaint is that a lot of people in these bands should, you know, practice more. Just getting up there and noodling around, just because the kids get into it, doesn't mean it's interesting music.
Q: You guys bring great variation to every show. First time I saw you, I could hardly breathe because the room was so crammed full of notes, dense with notes. Next year you came through town again, and it was all space, room to groove. Do you guys have a game plan for each show?
A: That first gig, we were getting paid per note. Really, though, we don't plan ahead at all. That's what we're about. Improvisation is key for us. The jam-band scene is a bit of an illusion -- not all these bands are improvising. They know what they're doing; they have stuff worked out. We stretch our limits every night.
Q: Your last record, End of the World Party (Just in Case), is sort of an encapsulation of all the styles you've explored on previous albums.
A: It wasn't necessarily intended that way, but it's the nature of who produced it and his take on our music. John King [one half of the Dust Brothers, who also produced Beck's Odelay and the Beastie Boys' Paul's Boutique] is much more of a pop producer, and that's a pop thing to do, to distill things to the essence and present that essence. We usually do the opposite and examine things thoroughly, play one thing for hours.
Q: Did you like working with King? Did he influence the songwriting process?
A: We just let the music lead the way. In the course of a week, we'll go a thousand different directions, and you have to pick 12 [for the album]. So it was all about him making those decisions instead of us.
Q: You gonna do that again?