Review | John Medeski | San Francisco

Words by: Thomas Marshall Reilly

John Medeski :: 10.17.13 :: SFJAZZ Center :: San Francisco, CA

The new SFJAZZ Center in San Francisco kicked off a weeklong run of solo piano concerts on Thursday night with a stellar performance by John Medeski. The Center opened in January 2013 as the nation’s first building constructed entirely for the advancement of jazz music and carried a price tag of $65 million. The money seems to have been spent in all the right places. As Medeski sat at a gorgeous Steinway & Sons grand piano in the Robert N. Miner Auditorium two things became clear: the show was totally unamplified and it sounded incredible.

The room itself is built with the full range of jazz forms accounted for and the hefty Meyer Sound speaker system has all the power you could possibly need. But on Thursday, as Medeski played his way through jazz, gospel, pop and various improvisational tunes, the sound that filled the auditorium came only from the piano itself. The stage stands barely a foot off the ground and the floor seats may as well be up there with the performer. As the Center’s main performance hall, it has clearly been built with more than just sound quality in mind, the connection between artists and patrons was paramount to the design as well.

Those in the Milner Auditorium that night were treated to two hours of John Medeski’s brilliant piano work in the ideal setting for jazz in the 21st Century. Saying barely a word to the crowd, Medeski humbly took his seat at the piano at a slight angle with his back to the crowd. The shimmering ebony gloss on the wooden Steinway perfectly reflected his hands back to the audience as they alternatively danced, leapt, hammered, slid and trickled across the keys. Putting the music aside, watching John Medeski play the piano is an experience in and of itself. While his torso rocks back and forth on the bench, his right leg from the knee down is a rhythmic force of nature, constantly keeping time while his arms moved back and forth in a precise flurry of activity across the keyboard. The occasional push up off the bench and a few kicks with his left leg indicate when things are heating up. In those moments he can be heard vocalizing his melodies, belting out notes in a sort of half-singing, half-humming voice that mimic the notes he’s playing, improvised or not. This is much in the habit of other pianists, most notably Thelonious Monk, who can be heard almost shouting his melodies over the piano on some recordings. Medeski gave Monk a nod during the show when he hopped into a lively version of “Blue Monk” midway through his first set, perhaps a tip of the hat to Monk’s recording of it that opens his Thelonious Alone In San Francisco album recorded at the nearby Fugazi Hall 54 years ago, almost to the day.

The range of styles heard over the two sets Medeski played that night was quite varied. From smooth, silky jazz chords to be-bop staccato riffing to incredibly dissonant runs to when he simply scratched his nails across the wound copper on the lower piano strings, emulating a DJ’s needle on a turntable. He even half-crawled inside of the open piano hood and plucks the strings as if he was playing an upright bass, all the while losing none of his mastery of phrasing and melody.

While he stayed shy of his extensive catalog of compositions with longtime trio, Medeski, Martin & Wood, the crowd was treated to intricate versions of standards like “Summertime” and “Autumn Leaves”, as well as some re-imagined pop tunes. “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free” from Nina Simone’s 1967 Silk & Soul album and an encore performance of “Hey Joe” were among the night’s most crowd pleasing moments. We even heard traces of the theme from “The Snowman," a 1982 animated holiday film. Medeski is touring behind the release of his first solo record, In A Different Time.

While the room was woefully undersold for such a high-caliber performance, one only hopes that it's just because the spectacular venue has only been open for ten months and word hasn’t yet reached the masses. So if you’re looking to experience true jazz music as it unfolds in front of you there is no better place than the SFJAZZ Center and no better man than John Medeski to take you there.

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