A Fireside Chat with John Medeski
“ It's gratifying when the people that are checking the music out go and check out Mingus and Duke Ellington or any of the other people. Sometimes we will play somebody else's song on a gig and then they will go check out the original. ”
All About Jazz: Let's start from the beginning.
John Medeski: I started when I was a kid, when I was like five. I started taking piano lessons, classical piano lessons. That's pretty much all I've really ever done since I was twelve. I knew around there that this is what I wanted to do and I kind of started focusing on playing the piano and on music, all different kinds, everything I could do. I got into jazz around that time too. When I was like eleven or twelve, I got turned onto by one of my friend's big brothers. He was listening to jazz and he turned me onto it. I just got really into it and started checking it out then and studied. I found a really great teacher and started studying jazz too.
AAJ: What were you listening to?
JM: Well, the first one was an Oscar Peterson record, which is pretty funny. Then I heard some Bud Powell, I guess, was the next thing that hit me. That blew my mind and Cecil Taylor. I think A Love Supreme (Impulse!) was another one around that time. It was just great, incredible music. It's one of the great records. It's great music. It took me a long time to figure it out. Something about it drew me to it. But I was a kid, so I just listen to it over and over and over with headphones. That's kind of what got me into it. I also listened to some other stuff like Tony Williams' Lifetime, the stuff that other people were listening to.
AAJ: How did Medeski, Martin, and Wood come about?
JM: We got together in New York. We first just got together to play, just to play together. We started doing gigs together at this club called The Village Gate in New York City.
AAJ: How long have the three of you, Chris (Wood) and Billy (Martin), been playing together?
JM: Since '91.
AAJ: So MMW has been knocking on the door for a while.
JM: We were on a different label, Rykodisc, before Blue Note. We were on Rykodisc, Gramavision, which became part of Rykodisc. We were on Gramavision and then we got on Blue Note.
AAJ: I remember you guys playing the Horde Festival.
JM: That's right. We did four Horde Festivals. It was great. We would only do a little bit at a time. We would do like a two week, week stint usually. We had a great time doing it. It's a different audience. It's bigger. It was a different situation than we had been used to at that time. Since then, we've done a lot of shows like that.
AAJ: Through playing alternative festivals you have been very successful at reaching out and bringing younger audiences to the music.
JM: It's beyond cool. It was like the choice we made. Those guys are going to get older and change too and hopefully, as we do, they'll be into it. When we first went out to play, we specifically did not play jazz clubs. We did a couple on one of our first tours and it was such a weird feeling. We had a better experience playing at coffee houses and places like that where the younger people were at.
AAJ: What is the average age of someone who comes to hear MMW?
JM: It's a pretty young audience, 25 and under is the main part of it.
AAJ: When you guys are on stage, the audience is dancing to it, grooving to it, and in some cases doing a pretty hip rave hybrid.
JM: Yeah, or just checking it out. That's the way it should be.
AAJ: It is a relaxed vibe and not that sterile atmosphere that most jazz clubs tend to give off, and you guys are bringing an audience to the music that ordinarily might never listen to Charles Mingus or Ornette Coleman.
JM: It's gratifying when the people that are checking the music out go and check out Mingus and Duke Ellington or any of the other people. Sometimes we will play somebody else's song on a gig and then they will go check out the original. Yeah, that's gratifying to be able to do that, not do that, but to be a link.
AAJ: Let's touch on your debut on Blue Note, Combustication.
JM: We did two different weeks. We did a week of recording before we went on the road. We did a month tour and we came back and did another week of recording. Blue Note's been great. It's been great. We love the people who are there and they are really good for us, I think.
AAJ: So are you in the studio working on the follow-up?
JM: We're going to have a record called Tonic, which is a live, acoustic, piano, bass, and drums trio set from some live gigs we did in New York. We probably play an acoustic tour for that. Do a bunch of acoustic trio gigs for that little period, late spring and summer of this coming year and then we will see what happens in the fall.
AAJ: And do you have a scheduled release date?
JM: That's going to come out in April. Right now, we are working on our other record and that will probably come out sometime in the fall or something. This is a more electric kind of thing. Definitely the way we do it.
AAJ: Is this going to be the Medeski, Martin, and Wood flavor we are all accustomed to.
JM: No, I think it's a new flavor from New Orleans and some other flavors. We're going to come back and do some more work on it in February. We're moving slow with it. We're taking our time. We're trying out some new things, new vibes.
AAJ: Much of your audience may not know this, but you moonlight with DJ Logic and John Zorn.
JM: Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah. A lot of different people. I do different stuff with Zorn and all those different people. I'm doing some gigs with Joey Baron.
AAJ: Marc Ribot plays with you and Joey.
JM: Of course, yeah, I'm doing some gigs with Joey Baron and Ribot. We play in a trio together. And Zorn, I don't know if a record will be released, but we have a band that's great. That's one of my favorite things to do these days. The band is called Emergency. It's live. It's got Marc Ribot, Kenny Wolleson, who is one great drummer, and Zorn, who is just incredible. It's just a blast.
AAJ: Diversity suits you well.
JM: It's the way it's always been for me. I've always done a lot of different types of things. It keeps me fresh. It keeps me growing. It keeps me into it.
AAJ: Medeski, Martin, and Wood is a touring band, possibly the only one left in the music.
JM: Oh, I love touring, Fred. I love playing out there on the road, being on the road and playing for people there. We figured if we played for a while, we'd get something back later and we have.
AAJ: What is the oddest place MMW has played?
JM: It was East Lansing, Michigan. And the club that we were supposed to play got closed by the fire marshal the night before, so we ended up playing like in this little alley next to the club. We brought all our stuff, B-3 and everything and set it up. The alley way slowly filled with all of these people. It was pretty wild. It turned into a pretty bizarre scene.
AAJ: What is the challenge for MMW in the coming year and thereafter?
JM: To keep it fresh. To keep it exciting for us, so that we can translate that excitement to the audience. That's always the challenge.