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Keys to the City

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?

A: Well, like Sun Ra said, "The clouds don't repeat themselves, the sunrise doesn't repeat itself. Why should I repeat myself?" Though there's nothing wrong with repetition. There's nothing wrong with repetition. There's nothing wrong with repetition.

Q: So tell me more about growing up in Fort Lauderdale. Were you a band nerd?

A: I was in my high school band, yeah. I was in bands as soon as I could play. I started piano lessons at 5 years old on Bayview Drive. When I was in high school, I studied jazz with a woman named Lee Shaw. I went to Pinecrest; it was a different place back then. It was just a bunch of kids hanging out, a lot of cross-pollinating, none of that misfit feeling -- other than what you usually have as a kid.

I studied jazz for a while, then went to FAU to take jazz lessons. I just played in the scene a lot when I was in high school. I was already gigging a lot at 16, making a little extra money. Played at this country club, doing "New York, New York" for the old people in Delray.

Q: Did you always know you wanted to play jazz?

A: I kinda always knew it, but when I went off to college in Boston at the New England Conservatory, I went as a classical major. But in my first year, I said, "I don't wanna do this." This was the late '80s, early '90s. I met Chris there in Boston. Somehow his playing stuck out -- rhythmically, it was so powerful -- and we just hooked up in a really good way. I met Billy through this great drummer we all worked with named Bob Moses. Billy was living in New York, and so Chris and I moved down there, and we started getting together, and it just clicked. The first time we got together, it was pretty magical. We just started on a beat and a bass line, and I played around. We added a horn line, and that became "Uncle Chubb" [later recorded for their debut, Notes from the Underground]. That's the first thing we ever did together: We created a piece of music. We figured that was a good sign, but now we're stuck like this.

Q: Well, you guys have your side/solo projects too.

A: We did before we met, and that's how we keep growing... And it keeps us from killing each other.

Q: What about the band name? Is it a tribute to Emerson Lake & Palmer or something?

A: I couldn't recognize an ELP tune if I heard it. We had the name Coltrane's Wig for a second, but it got a very mixed response. We couldn't decide on a name, so we figured, "Let's just use our names." Then once we really started playing out together, we immediately became Medeski, Martin, and Wood.

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Jonathan Zwickel

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