John Medeski: Mad Science
The sight of John Medeski performing on stagehis brow furrowed by intense concentrationcan be intimidating. Armed with an arsenal of instruments both traditional and unconventional, he concocts sonic combinations most listeners would never have otherwise conceived. It's obvious that he's there to worknot play. Like a mad scientist who's been stuck in his lab for months, Medeski proudly shows off the results of his experiments, making the listener sit up and take notice...perhaps even notes. The doctor is in session.
Off stage, however, Medeski's intensity morphs into an unbridled enthusiasm for music. He's happy to be here, making music every day. After nearly 20 years as one of the most popular jazz and avant-garde groups in the world, Medeski Martin and Wood shows no signs of slowing down. According to Medeski, the group's bond continues to strengthen.
"We started off as friends and now we're family," he said. "It's like a marriage with two other guys."
Medeski's 'spouses' are bassist Chris Wood and drummer/percussionist Billy Martin. While every marriage has ups and downs, Medeski said that the group's latest project has created a veritable "up." This month they're touring in support of their mammoth boxed set Radiolarians: The Evolutionary Set. It chronicles a period where the trio intended for the albums to go hand in hand with the live performances they were doing at the time. "It was kind of backwards," Medeski said. "We wrote material, toured on it and then came back and recorded it instead of recording and then going on tour."
In addition to the group's three "Radiolarians" albums released over the last two years, the set features a slew of extra materials, including a live CD, an album of remixes and a handful of bonus tracks. The highlight, however, is Fly in a Bottle: a feature-length documentary directed by Martin, who Medeski affectionately refers to as "Billy Martin Scorsese." The 90-minute film invites the viewer to become a fly on the wall as the group records and tours during the "Radiolarians" period.
"As with everything he does, Billy's got his own style of filmmaking," Medeski said. "It's funny because when I watched it I realized how little we talk about anything when we're working on anything music related."
Along with the feature, the disc also contains a few more Martin-directed curios, including a short entitled CW that's described as Martin's interpretation of Medeski and Chris Wood's relationship, told via a time lapse shot taken on the group's tour bus. Asked if Martin's short film accomplished its stated goal, Medeski said, "Maybe in his own mind! It's totally abstract and hilarious."
Ahead of a Medeski Martin and Wood tour, Medeski will hold down the fort at the not-for-profit venue The Stone in the East Village for a weeklong residency. Medeski constructed the program and selected all of the musicians. Along with two nights of solo performances, he'll join up with a handful of diverse ensemblesone of which is Red Cred: a band Medeski gigs with on the side in Woodstock, NY, where he resides. It will be the band's New York debut. Billy Martin will be on hand for a performance by Hum, a group that also includes guitarist Marc Ribot and drummer Calvin Weston. Medeski seemed most enthusiastic about an evening he has dubbed "Concert of the Secret Guardians," which boasts an ensemble featuring guitarist Tisziji Munoz, who Medeski describes as a "guru and spiritual master" who plays "healing fire-music."
The residency kicks off, however, with a duet performance by the curator and John Zorn, who is also The Stone's Artistic Director, as well as an old friend of the group. Medeski Martin and Wood recently paid tribute to Zorn with their contribution to the Zaebos project, in which a series of ensembles interpret a part of Zorn's Book of Angels series. "We knew Zorn from New York before we 'made it,'" Medeski said. "He's one of the guys. He's a mastera force of nature."
Medeski came to New York after graduating from the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston. Before Boston he emerged from a rather unlikely place: the south. "I grew up in Fort Lauderdale," Medeski said. "But that's not really The South, according to Southerners."
Although the southern jazz scene might not have been as prevalent as those surrounding rock and country-western, Medeski developed a love for jazz at a young age. "The brother of a friend who lived down the street played me some Oscar Peterson," Medeski recalled. "Then I heard some Weather Report and Thelonious Monk. At about 12 or 13 I started taking lessons from this woman Lee Shaw and every week she would give me tons of records."