We Can Be Spontaneous: John Medeski Reflects On 25 Years Of MMW & The Many Projects He’s Keyed Into
Welcome to another edition of The Art Of The Sit-In, where we mix it up with the scene’s most adventurous players and hear some stories from the road. For more, check out our recent interviews with Chuck Leavell, Joe Russo, Oteil Burbridge, Joel Cummins, Scott Sharrard, Marco Benevento and many more. (A full archive of The Art Of The Sit-In is here.)
Ever watch John Medeski when he really gets going? When he has that ever-so-slightly-manic expression on his face, and he seems to be communicating from an otherworldly place, and his hands start climbing over each other like crazed spiders, pulling out all manner of interesting sounds, progressions and tonal variations on whatever keyboard he happens to be addressing?
Yeah, you’ve done that – and you know that look. Maybe you’ve been doing it for three decades, which is about the amount of time now that Medeski has been one of the scene’s most reliably fascinating players – a true wizard of keyboard-based instruments and a world class improviser.
From Spectrum Road, The Word and Phil Lesh & Friends to DRKWAV and The M&Ms, Medeski’s been part of so many interesting ensembles over the years that any short description of his versatility would be a fraction of the story. Still, it’s his role in acid-jazz and groove legends Medeski Martin & Wood that remains his best-known affiliation, and, to hear Medeski tell it, still the one that’s never gotten stale and never felt anything less than family.
MMW, who came up among downtown New York experimental jazz before being wholeheartedly embraced by the budding modern jam band scene in the early 1990s, celebrates 25 years this year. MMW gigs – let alone tours – are fewer and farther between now than they once were, and Medeski telling me there aren’t currently any MMW plans for 2017 isn’t without a twinge of disappointment. But if providing enough room for Medeski, Chris Wood and Billy Martin to indulge their other priority bands and projects is what keeps the MMW ship afloat – and fresh – well, far be it for us not to trust the word of the M, the M, or the W.
Here’s John, who caught up with JamBase just ahead of Medeski Martin & Wood’s three long-sold-out 25th anniversary shows at New York’s Le Poisson Rouge, October 18, 19 and 20.
JAMBASE: Twenty five years of Medeski Martin & Wood, John. What does that mean to you? Are you conscious of it?
JOHN MEDESKI: It means I’m old! Yeah, we’re conscious of it. It’s 25 years and it sure doesn’t feel like it. I never thought when we started that it would go on this long. I don’t think any of us would want to be doing this or anything if it ever became stale, or if we started to become a caricature of ourselves, and that hasn’t happened. We still like playing together, we still like hanging out. You see a lot of bands that have been together for a long time and it’s pretty hard to understand why they’re still doing it: Money? Nothing else to do? For us, it’s always been about the music and we wouldn’t keep doing it if we didn’t have that connection still.
JAMBASE: The band doesn’t play as much anymore and you guys seem to have settled into this relationship that has MMW happen when it happens and then the freedom to do other things. Do you think if you were still touring as much as you used to it would get stale?
JM: I guess so, yeah. Last year we took the year off, sort of, and that was planned. We did one show with this amazing chamber orchestra called Alarm Will Sound and then we made this decision to take the year off. It’s something we had talked about doing forever: hey, we should take a year off sometime, with all of us always doing other things. It’s the doing of those other things that’s kept us growing as individuals, and I think that has sort of helped us stay together as a band.
If each of us is growing, we have something to offer as a whole. So that was our decision last year and we sort of extended it into this year as well. We’re not done, but we’ve definitely wanted to take a break for a little while. Any time you have guys together as long as we’ve been together, the chemistry brings out a certain expected element. We’ve explored that element quite a bit now, so we want to be sure it’s kept fresh. So we’re doing this one run, which includes Le Poisson Rouge and then two shows in Cleveland where we’ll have a lot of special guests, and we’re planning to do a documentary from that. And that’s it for the year.
JAMBASE: And next year?
JM: No real plans. We don’t have anything on the calendar for Medeski, Martin & Wood.
JAMBASE: You mention guests. You guys as a trio have that tight-knit chemistry honed over decades. Some guests come into that and thrive, others, I imagine, haven’t worked out. What’s your take on how often and why you guys try to involve that element?
JM: We do what we do, and as other elements come in, they’re just that, other elements. We react and respond and play accordingly. Usually the people that work the best are people that have a very strong musical personality. We can all do a lot of different kinds of music – it’s a pretty broad spectrum in terms of what we’re willing to stretch towards. Funky stuff, jazzy stuff, cinematic stuff – there’s a lot of different directions. So someone who has a really strong voice can come in and shift the energy of the entire experience, whether that’s [Marc] Ribot, or Nels Cline, or [John] Scofield, or Marshall Allen, or Steve Bernstein. We’ve had all of them, we’ve had the Antibalas guys, it’s always different. We all love so much different music and none of us are just one way about anything. So with that in mind, very few things have not really worked. You just get better chemistry with some people than others, and it’s hard to put into words and explain why or how that happens. You can get plenty of great musicians together, and the music will be fine but may not have that great, intangible quality. You kind of never know.
JAMBASE: Has the chemistry between you, Billy and Chris changed much over time?
JM: I don’t know that it’s changed – evolved is a better word. It’s gotten deeper. I think because we all do other things and all pursued other aspects of our musical lives, when we get back together there’s a certain comfort – the energy is there that we can all easily plug back into. You can’t get that way doing anything other than having experiences together. We all lived together in a camper for years and went around the country. You can’t duplicate that any other way. We’re like family. On a personal level, we still, when we play together, go have dinner together and hang out and then do our gig. It’s not like we show up and get on stage right away and only see each other when we’re playing.
JAMBASE: Not an Axl-Slash relationship in the band then?
JM: No [laughs]. No, we were adamant not to be like that. We saw in the early days, especially when we played a lot of big festivals and opened for a ton of bigger bands … I won’t mention names, but it was clear in some cases that they don’t get along, they don’t talk to each other except when they have to.
We were very clear, very early that we were never going to be like that. And look, wow, 25 years has gone by, and we’re still together. That’s where it’s wild. You’d think that the true half life of a band that really gets along and can play creative music together can’t be that long. But I also think it’s the choices we’ve made to keep ourselves in the creative game. We could have made different choices: crowd-pleasing choices, record company approved choices, whatever. We pushed to keep it creative. We don’t play pop music, our music isn’t on the radio – maybe NPR, but it’s just not built for that format, there’s a lot of improvisation in it. There’s a lot of stuff happening in the moment that won’t happen again under any circumstance. If you’re in that world, if you’re playing that same song you wrote 40 years ago that you’re starting to wish you never wrote because it’s all people want to hear from you – well, that’s just never been our thing.
JAMBASE: Did it often come up for you guys to go in more of a pop or at least commercially “acceptable” direction, especially as you got bigger?
JM: No, no, we never really allowed it to happen. We felt there was a certain period where that pressure was starting to be there, but that was a long time ago. Probably when we made The Dropper (2000), that was the turning point for us. We kind of called it The Dropper … well, it has multiple meanings but one was that we were pretty sure it would get us dropped from the record label. It had a lot of interesting stuff in it in addition to the psychedelic sides of what we do.
JAMBASE: Whether it was those sounds or other things MMW has explored over the years, what would you have wanted to do more of? Maybe an idea you three had at one point that now, looking back, you didn’t indulge enough?
JM: I don’t think we were wanting for anything more, necessarily. The more exploratory, sonic, soundscapey things – I think there was a time where we had some interest in that and maybe we could feel that the audience was not totally with us when we were doing those things. We always kind of do what we feel like doing, but that stuff would have been fun to do more of. We kept it pretty broad for a reason. It still feels good and fresh. As old and haggard as we’ve become [laughs], doing it never feels old.
JAMBASE: JamBase launched as key outlet covering the jam band scene, which obviously has grown over the years. A lot of folks would pinpoint those shows in 1995 opening for Phish that brought you guys into this scene, and kept you here. Is that your recollection?
JM: To be honest, it was one of those things that was a blessing and a curse, I would say. In the early years we had a hipster kind of audience, not really a jazz audience, but it would also change depending on where we were. A Virginia audience was different than a Knoxville audience and was different than a New York audience, definitely in the early ‘90s. That was so fun for us to do then because the music would just naturally adjust to whatever that audience was in the room – it was exciting.
Like anything, as soon as a scene becomes more codified and gets larger, the common denominator lowers. That’s not a bad thing, but what you can do in front of an audience of, say, 25,000 people is very different than what you can do in a room of 50 people who are there just to see you. That’s true of anything more intimate, or anything involving conversation.
So it was exciting to have a bigger audience that was more of the same, on one side, but there were also times when we’d get into some really exploratory sonic stuff, and there’d be some idiot in the front row yelling “Do something!” It’s been our mission to always push the limits of exploration, and play music that goes on a journey. We’re not a funky dance band. At times what we do is funky and danceable, but that’s not what we are. We love exploring groove and different rhythms and things, but what we’ve really been about is creating music in the moment – improvisation. In the beginning of the jam band scene, people were looking for that. They came out to see bands in that scene because they wanted that experience.
The Grateful Dead were never my scene but I did see them in the ‘80s. I was into jazz and reggae and classical music and funk, and a lot of the guys I went to school with in Boston took me to see the Dead in Providence. I had never seen a stadium full of people where everyone was so nice to each other. I’d been to, like, football games and people are fighting, but here, everyone was sharing and beautiful. Somewhere in the middle of this show, it was clear these people were there looking for the time in the show when the band was wanting to get more exploratory.
That was the first time I remember thinking that there’s really something improvised music gives you that no other music does – this many people, at once, wanting that cathartic experience where it’s not only happening in the moment but really happening. Which is not to say that improvisational music is better than a great song, but it does something nothing else does. I think a lot of people are still looking for that. That feeling helped MMW get out there and do what we do, and when we started to do that, no one we could see was really doing that – the musicians in the early ‘90s were out trying to get record deals. For us, it was, let’s go out and play and see who shows up, build some audience, and if we can get to a point where 100 people will show up in every town to come see us, we can pay to stay out there. So that seed of doing it that way wasn’t around so much when we first started out, but it grew pretty quickly. People are looking for that experience. The idea of the “jam” – let’s have a jam, improvisation. As stupid as the “jam band” name is, it’s really what people were looking for.
JAMBASE: I have to wonder if your outlook on that whole seminal Dead experience changed, in retrospect, when you started playing with Phil Lesh. You’ve done a number of Phil & Friends shows in the last 10 years.
JM: It didn’t change, the improvisational thing is what I’ve always gone for. But playing with Phil did give me a whole other level of appreciation. Learning those songs did. It’s a lot of really great songs. I really did not know that music, and some of the songs are really fantastic. But it’s the spirit – Phil’s spirit, at his age, he really does give 100 percent every show. That’s what you want to be – I want to be like that. He is 100 percent. He is listening to everything that’s going on the entire show – that’s an hour and a half set and then a two-hour set, and he is present the whole time. His dream is that the solos are intertwined and there’s this conversation going on. I love that. To get to work with him and where he’s coming from and what he wants to do, it’s beautiful and it’s inspiring. Doing it felt good to me, it felt a lot more natural to me, conceptually, than I thought it would. I have a lot of respect for Phil, too, that he changes the group up a lot and wants to keep the energy moving forward.
JAMBASE: You’ve been a part of so many bands, projects, one-offs, jams, collaborations. How do you decide what becomes worthy of extended focus and what’s best to leave in the moment and not really return to?
JM: I’ve got a long, long list of ideas and concepts of things I want to do, and I’m so busy that it’s hard to do everything that I want to do. DRKWAV came about organically – most of the projects I end up involved in start and evolve somehow organically. The Word was originally very organic, too: Luther [Dickinson] and I had talked for years about doing an instrumental gospel record, something that would bring out the spirit of the music without the words. Robert [Randolph] came into the mix after we’d already booked the recording session – that came together in this magic way and then of course Robert launched into this insanely amazing career. I had no idea The Word was going to get back together 11 years later and do another record, so hopefully it means we can do some more. DRKWAV, well, Skerik pushed to get it together and it just seemed like a great combination of people. We’d played together in different scenarios here and there over about a 15-year period, so based on what we’ve done so far we’re inspired to keep that going. The music we play is very challenging, and I’d love to do more and we’re all going to kind of do that as much as we can whenever anybody can get us on the same schedule together.
JAMBASE: And it sounds like Mad Skillet has evolved the same way?
JM: Mad Skillet is going to do a lot more. We have a couple of tours in Europe coming up, and our record should be coming out next year. That evolved out of a few gigs in New Orleans – late night shows during Jazz Fest that were sort of a dream situation. So we made a record, and that’ll be happening. And I recorded another project that I always wanted to do more of – an organ trio with Dave Fiuczynski and G. Calvin Weston. There’s that. And I’m also doing a lot with John Zorn, which is really great – he’s so prolific and such a force out there, so I’m trying to work on that as much as possible.
JAMBASE: Who haven’t you played with that you’d really like to, or would like to play more with?
JM: Honestly, this month I’m playing with Foundations of Funk, with George Porter and the Meters guys. Art [Neville’s] not really able to tour anymore and they’ve had other people fill the spot and I’m getting a turn. That’s beyond anything, getting to play some of that music with those guys. I’m actually nervous.
JM: Oh yeah man. Those are our heroes, those guys. I’m excited and nervous. I’ll add to that i got to play with Carlos Santana when I had this band Spectrum Road, which was a Tony Williams Lifetime band. Unfortunately, Jack [Bruce] left the planet – that was a great band. But Carlos came down and sat-in with us. I’d love to play more with him, we’ll see. Wayne Shorter is someone else. But I’ve been so lucky getting to play with so many great people.
JAMBASE: Before we close up here, John, I’d love to hear a sit-in story. What comes to mind?
JM: In more recent times, at Brooklyn Bowl, I got to play with Antibalas in the past year. Man, that was a blast. We’ve done shows with them before and Medeski, Martin & Wood used them as a horn section, but to go up and play with them for a whole night of music – that was awesome. To get inside of their music, what a blast.
JAMBASE: Do you rehearse for a situation like that or just kind of go up there and slide in?
JM: No, I’m not afraid to rehearse. Whatever I do is going to have elements of freshness and being in the moment, but we rehearsed a bit ahead of time. Too much rehearsal is bad – the right amount makes sense. That’s been true of Medeski, Martin & Wood for always. We can get up there, we can be a combination, we can be spontaneous.