THE WIZARD OF THE WORD

Jazz is over!” says John Medeski, arguably the best jazz pianist on the live music scene right now. In fact, he exuberantly goes on, “I don’t even know who or what is a jazz musician!” Back in the day Jazz was, as Jack Kerouac eloquently wrote, “IT!” Jazz was live music improvisation, it was about musicians creating moments and people feeding off of those moments, it was about being alive and screaming out loud because you could. It calls to mind smoky nightclubs and people pressing all limits while getting into trouble with those who just didn’t understand. The energy and life of the music is still what people crave, but a natural evolution has occurred; everyone is looking for the artists who are taking the music a step further. It’s all about who’s playing the best music the general populous never even thought existed until it is made in front of them. This is why music fans flock almost religiously to the jam scene to be there and watch the ground breaking creation take place.

“I definitely see a certain scene going on with the jam bands,” says Medeski. “To me it’s like a lot of different kinds of music that incorporate rhythms that make you want to move and various other kinds of improvisatory music. Whether it’s jazz, bluegrass, or spacey-rock, whatever. It’s kind of how I see the ‘downtown’ scene of New York, I see that as another kind of hybrid music. I don’t know what you want to call it, but people are taking their favorite influences and creating their own kind of music out of it. To me, Jazz is so irrelevant anymore. Like the Ken Burns special, I mean, Jazz is over man. In a certain way, it’s not over; the music is never over. What was Jazz, the theme, the whole pulse of it, the heartbeat, the living soul of it in the life of everybody is different now. It has become history. It’s a historic thing, it’s cultural historic, its one of the most amazing things that’s ever happened in the human race. What Jazz was in the first place was a temporary thing. It in itself was combination of many elements that came together. It’s like magic. It’s the perfect way to create this unbelievable thing. It’s like life on this planet, that’s probably how it happened, too. It’s like the perfect elements came together and boom it happened. Jazz is the same thing! The African influence, the western influence, it’s all in it. And out of it comes this incredible thriving improvisational music. What jazz has done is it has influenced so much of what’s going on now, it’s like, what do we call it now. Look what you guys are doing with JamBase. We’re on this multi-media highway where information is flying around so fast, so there’s not the time for anything to develop into a movement or a thing. Everything just is what it is. Individual.”

We are in the middle of a changing of the guard in the music industry in so many ways. The internet is changing the face of acquiring music as we know it, there is no definite replacement as of yet for Phish or the Grateful Dead leaving thousands looking for a band to call home. Blue Note, the biggest Jazz record label of all-time, has dove head first into the jam scene signing artists Medeski, Martin & Wood, Soulive, and Karl Denson to name a few. “I think Blue Note sees a certain element in these bands and they’re out there looking to see what will work, what will drive sales. But I think it’s cool that Blue Note is going for bands that are part of a vital scene as opposed to re-assembling old jazz greats and other ideas that might not work.”

Currently, Blue Note’s focus is no longer limited to Jazz in the traditional sense, instead they are keeping with the high-energy improvisational music Jazz used to represent. Medeski continues, “A person can say that none of the bands, us included, are anything on the level of what was happening in the 50’s and 60’s.”

Still, it is impossible to decide who fits where in a historic scope until significant time has passed and more perspective can be gained. The importance is “it’s what’s happening now. What’s going on, what people are going out and seeing, and I think that’s awesome!” It’s being on the cutting edge. In the 50’s and 60’s, those bands were the scene and it was so good that they are remembered and idolized as legends. They were what people were going out to nightclubs to see for improvisational music. It’s no different now, this is the live music people are going out to see.

Time will tell how our generation’s music is remembered, but one thing we already know is Medeski, Martin & Wood has been making serious noise on the scene since the early 90’s. It is more or less unheard of for a jazz style band to sell out New York City’s Beacon Theatre in the middle of the week like MMW did last Halloween, a feat they will repeat this year. When asked what they are doing that appeals to so many people, Medeski is almost flabbergasted quickly reacting, “I DON’T KNOW! I really don’t know. I have no idea. I think it’s great. We’re not trying. I don’t know. It’s awesome!”

One thing they’re definitely doing is keeping the music fresh. Older material from albums such as It’s a Jungle In Here and Shack-Man represented a much more groove-oriented style. However, their newer material like their latest release The Dropper is more in the spacey avant-garde jazz vibe. Medeski feels it was definitely a natural evolution, “[Change] just happens. It really does. It’s all on your perspective. Like Combustication goes to a lot of different places during the record, but The Dropper has a lot of wilder stuff on there. That’s why I think the groove part of it is getting heavier somehow. I don’t know, it’s weird. What we’ve always done, since the first time we ever got together and played it has been exploring, improvising and grooves, finding their inner relationship, how to take the stuff related to the rhythms of the time now versus rhythm in time. Trying to find the rhythms of today and find ways to be creative with them musically. That’s what we’ve always wanted to do, every different record is another way of doing that as we’ve grown. We’re working on a new record now doing just that.”

Medeski, Martin & Wood is a band with a completely unique sound, they are constantly pushing the limit in music, improvisation, and connection. As a group they have their priorities straight, doing what is most important for them as musicians. Medeski says, “We’re not going to keep doing it just to do it. You gotta keep the music evolving; we have to or else we wouldn’t stay together because it would become stagnant.” In this same line of thought one of their recent releases, Tonic, occurred because they wanted to keep themselves from any possible monotony in their music and performing. “We had been playing big places, doing a lot of rocking kind of shows and we really wanted to go to the opposite extreme for ourselves. It’s a whole different thing when you’re playing in front of tons of people, it creates a whole different dynamic of communication for the band. A trio thing is a certain thing. We’re not really a party dance band, totally, it’s not what we do, its never what we do. We wanted to get back to a real intimate feeling and connect musically that way. In a small club it’s a lot easier to get a real thing between the audience and the band, where we can really go a lot of places. You start getting to a bigger audience and a lot of people are there just to party and have a good time, which is awesome, but its really different from what we do. So what we did was we decided to do these gigs at a small club playing acoustic instruments, the opposite of loud amplification, no monitors, nothing. We played for us and anyone who was interested, that’s why we did it at such a small place. We didn’t really plan to make a record ever, but after we heard the tapes and the recording was good we decided to put it out. Then when the record came out we decided we should do a bunch of gigs like this. We picked certain smaller places that were right for that kind of music.” The Tonic tour was refreshing and each show was an intimate experience for Medeski, Martin & Woodand their fans.

Although MMW has not toured extensively this summer, John has managed to keep himself busy. He recently sat in with the Trey Anastasio Band for three shows in the mid-west. Also, he has watched a side project called The Word start as a concept album and blossom into a touring band in its own right In 1998, the North Mississippi All-Stars were opening for Medeski, Martin & Wood, it was during that tour John Medeski and Luther Dickinson discovered they shared a musical passion in sacred steel gospel. On tour they were constantly listening to an album called Sacred Steel on the Arhoolie label. Sacred Steel is a compilation of bluesy gospel tunes that revolve around the pedal steel guitar. By the end of the tour they decided because of their passion for the Sacred Steel sound, they had to collaborate on an instrumental gospel album. Almost three years later, John Medeski and the North Mississippi All-Stars, comprised of Luther and Cody Dickinson as well as Big Chris Chew, were ready to head into the studio. At this point they had no plans of using a pedal steel guitarist on the album until one fateful night in Manhattan.

The North Mississippi All-Stars were playing at the Bowery Ballroom a few days prior to going into the studio to make the gospel album. Unknown to them, one of the pedal steel guitarists who had blown them away on another steel pedal album called Sacred Steel Live, was opening up for them that night. His name is Robert Randolph and until that night, he had never performed live outside of The House Of God Church in Orange, NJ. He played a set with his family band (consisting mainly of his cousins) and simply tore the roof off of the Bowery. Immediately after the show Medeski and the North Mississippi All-Stars asked Robert to join them in the studio. Then and there he agreed and The Word was born. Medeski is really excited for the tour and feels great about the pedal steel guitarist joining the group. “I think Robert’s incredible. He’s an amazing talent. He’s got incredible rhythm and great ears. He’s really relaxed when he plays and he’s got a great sense of letting things flow. You never know what will happen these days, but I think Robert’s got the head to handle it. What the business part is like now is so different from when artists were developed and really realized their musical potential as well as their potential with popular culture. Now it’s a little different, people want to be popular right away. I think as long as he doesn’t get caught up in that, then he can really do a lot. I look forward to seeing what happens for him.”

Once in the studio, it took only three days to get everything down. They knew instantly what started as a concept album was destined to become something much bigger. About The Word's sound, Medeski feels, “its some rockin’ rural funky gospel music, it’s definitely very different from anything I ever would’ve imagined. It’s its own language. The music is expressing something that only music can express. So it’s hard to put it into words, I guess I would describe it as The Word.”

John Medeski is truly a musician in the moment. Being on the forefront of improvisational music today, he takes creative opportunities in stride, letting them develop naturally. For him the importance is not in planning, instead the focus is often complete and total improvisation. With his trio, Medeski, Martin & Wood, their evolution has been just that. The direction of their music has never been premeditated; instead it grows in time with constant playing and continual growth as musicians. Now he has brought something fresh to our ears again with his new band, consisting of Robert Randolph and the North Mississippi All-Stars and their self-titled debut, The Word. Everyone needs some steel gospel in their life, so do yourself a favor and pick up their new album. One thing is for certain, The Word is true.

Dan Kartzman
International JamBase Correspondent
Go See Live Music!

[Published on: 7/27/01]

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