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Artist Profiles

John Medeski: Mad Science

By Published: January 1, 2010
Shaw introduced the young Medeski to the works of Duke Ellington, Bud Powell, Count Basie and the like; but after the lessons ended, the explorations continued, leading him to artists like Cecil Taylor and the Mahavishnu Orchestra. "I just took it all in," he said. "For me it wasn't about different styles. I just liked cool music. Anything on Blue Note...anything on ECM at that time. I would just go to the record store and buy it."

By the early '90s, Medeski Martin and Wood was firmly established as one of the major proponents of the underground New York jazz scene. However, in the fall of 1995, the group opened for the rock band Phish. In the years that followed, Medeski Martin and Wood became as synonymous with the burgeoning "jamband" scene they were with that of jazz and the avant-garde.

Medeski shuddered somewhat at being grouped in with the jamband movement, but only because he's simply not a fan of the term itself. "It's not as creative a name as jazz or rock 'n' roll or hiphop," Medeski said. "Those are really cool names. 'Jamband' is a pretty weak poetic statement."

Despite his feelings about the word itself, Medeski appreciates the passion for music that many of the jamband fans bring to the table. He traces it back to his college days when a friend dragged him to a Grateful Dead show in Providence, RI. "I'd never been to an event with 20,000 people where there wasn't a fight," Medeski said.

The young jazz, reggae and R'n'B fan without much of a penchant for rock soon realized that something special was happening. "I was like 'Wow!' These people were putting up with this totally free music in the middle of this huge concert. I realized that there must be some portion of this audience that wants something different...who would probably really dig late Coltrane or Albert Ayler if they were exposed to it. They're looking for that cathartic experience that you get from improvised music.

"I think that's why a lot of people go out to see these jambands. That's what a lot of them are looking for. And those are the ones that cross over to see our gigs because that's what we're trying to do. We're just trying to get to a certain place...a certain vibrational state."

Medeski places a great deal of stock in the spiritual side of his music. He regularly practices meditation and yoga. Recently he and his wife journeyed into the jungles of Ecuador where he spent time with members of the indigenous tribe the Secoyas. To reach his destination it took a couple-hours bus ride from the airport, then another hours-long canoe trip. He couldn't bring along his Steinway piano or Hammond B3 organ, but he was able to take some of his more portable devices such as a melodica and a Hawaiian nose flute.

The trip served less as an opportunity for him to make music and more as a chance for the sounds of the jungle to inspire him. "The sounds there are unbelievable. The orchestra of creatures is just incredible. From jaguars to frogs to birds...that inspired me as much as any record."

Medeski's trip to the jungle will likely lend itself to his upcoming tour with Medeski Martin and Wood, as well as to their next journey into the studio, scheduled for next year. When asked if he ever plans on scaling back and playing something along the lines of a more traditional acoustic trio, he says he'd love to if only he could find the time.

"The problem is there's so much happening," he said. "I get asked to do so many amazing things that it's so hard to find the time. I can't turn down a lot of these opportunities that come my to get to play with James Carter or Susana Baca or with the Blind Boys of Alabama or to produce the Campbell Brothers or the Dirty Dozen Brass Band."

Regardless of how busy he is with all of his 'extracurricular' activities, one thing is for sure: Medeski Martin and Wood will be around for a long time to come. "There's no time limit," he said. "We're going to keep doing it as long as it's fun...or until we kill each other."

Recommended Listening

Medeski Martin and Wood, Notes from the Underground (Accurate, 1991-92)

Medeski Martin and Wood, Shack-Man (Gramavision, 1996)

John Scofield, A Go Go (Verve, 1997)

Medeski Martin and Wood, Tonic (Blue Note, 1999)

Sex Mob Meets Medeski, Live in Willisau (Thirsty Ear, 2006)

Medeski Martin and Wood, Radiolarians: The Evolutionary Set (Indirecto, 2008-09)

Photo Credit

Alias Rex

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