John Medeski: Strong as Ever with MMW
The Medeski, Martin & Wood band, one that has amassed followers like a snowball rolling down a mountain of wet snow since its emergence on the scene over 18 years ago, is one of those exceptional organizations that doesn't stick to playing what might be expected by its audiences. They don't play it safe, instead choosing to explore sounds, grooves, genres as the spirit moves them. And 2009 saw the spirit moving them a great deal.
Also, unlike many groups that stay together a long time for music making, these three gentlemen like each other. They tour the world playing their music, changing it nightly, and doing it according to their own vision. After all this time, the group hasn't gotten stale. It was a particularly fertile year for MMW. For proof, Exhibit A is Radiolarians: The Evolutionary Set, released Dec. 8, 2009, by Indirecto Records (the band's own label). It's a collection of music developed through the course of the year, some of it released previously as Radiolarians I, II and III, but now available in one package and augmented with more musical accessories.
"It's almost like it was in the early days again," says John Medeski, the keyboardist whose skills blend so deftly with those of bassist Chris Woods and drummer Billy Martin. "That's what's so weird. After 18 years you think we wouldn't be talking to each other. But we're like family. We're friends. We get along. I think this past year, doing this Radiolarians project, we get along better than ever. It's really a very creative thing for us, to do the three records, write all the music. It was very inspiring, and re-connecting, for us, with what we're capable of doing."
The new package set compiles the Radiolarians music released individually during the year along with three previously unreleased bonus tracks. There's also a special edition, high-quality audio, double-vinyl pressing of highlights from the three Radiolarians albums.
More? Sure. There's a 10-track disc of remixed music featuring contributions from nine different DJs and producers.
Enough? No. Toss in a previously unreleased 70-minute live album of the new material, and then a Billy Martin-directed DVD feature film entitled "Fly In A Bottle." Filmed in the studio and on the road, it provides an intimate portrait of the band and its music.
The Radiolarians is expansive, the trio bringing in many influences in both their playing and writing. Different styles and grooves. It gets funky, ethereal, complicated and slick. The process involved the trio getting together for brief writing retreats, then performing only that new material on tour. Then recording it immediately after getting off the road. It occurred three times while touring in different regions of the United States and South America.
The Radiolarian moniker comes from a type of single-celled marine organism with a very intricate exoskeleton. German biologist Ernst Haeckel's drawings were featured on the covers of all three Radiolarians recordsand were a visual inspiration for the trio's music throughout the project. Haeckel is credited with discovering and naming thousands of new species and popularizing the studies of Charles Darwin in Germany during the late 1800s.
"Sometimes we'd come up with ideas [individually], for other things we would create music together, which is something we have been doing for a long time," says Medeski. "It's easy for us. We created a night of music, then we would go out and do that for the whole tour. We would develop and work it out on the road ... Elements are open for improvisation so every night can be a little different. So, that's what we did. Every night would be a little different. It gave us the opportunity to develop, familiarize ourselves with a lot of aspects of the songs and where they could go, using a live audience for inspiration.
"So, we would come back and record. A couple days in the studio we'd do a very live recording. Our engineer who mixed the records, Dave Kent, is also the live engineer. So he got to hear the music for 10 days before [recording]. So everyone involved with the recording was very familiar with the music. We were able to go in and knock it off very quickly. Sort of a more jazz style. Be able to do it quick. Which was great."
Medeski says the process is fun and was a rare chance to get together just for writing. In previous cases, "because we have lives and do other projects, as a band we get together and do music when it's called for, [which means] when we're going to make a record, if we have a special project. For the past 10 years, we haven't just been getting together and writing songs just for the sake of it. We always have so many projects going and so many things going on that we, in general, have just done stuff that needed to be done."
But with Radiolarians, "This was a way of using our touring life as a reason to write this music. We sort of created the opportunity, basically. Created a way for us to do this. It's a way to keep things fresh, which we've always tried to do. There were definitely times years ago when we could have gone the more obvious route: the jam band-MMW-funky-groovy-easy-obvious selling route. Maybe we should have," he adds with a laugh. "We could all retire. But we didn't. We made a concerted effort to keep things fresh. That's who we are as individuals and musicians. We never would be happy, we certainly wouldn't still be together, had we done that."
Albums are still being made on vinyl, but its rare for a band of the status of MMW to do so. Simply put, they like the sound of the vinyl disks and people who still enjoy that medium will be more than pleased.
Left to right: Billy Martin, John Medeski and Chris Wood
"We've always loved vinyl. There are people always asking for it. Truth is, vinyl sales have gone up. It makes sense, because it is an incredible format. People are re-realizing it, and it tends to be people who have the means to buy the nice audiophile equipment," says Medeski. "There is nothing like it. If you're into it, you're into it. It's something you can't reproduce any other way. In truth, soon the downloadable technology is going to be as good or better than CDs. Right now, the MP3 thing is a complete disaster and drag, in my opinion. But that'll change. Eventually you'll be able to download super high resolution stuff. [Currently], they sound like shit. It's the worst element, the worst nightmare of what, sonically, digital music means. Especially if you compare it to a [vinyl] record. Put on a record and listen to it, then listen to an MP3. It's unbelievable. You listen to a record, you feel the music. You're in it. You put on MP3 and it's just kind of there.
"People argue digital is just as good. It's only barely getting to be just as good at the highest resolution. It will be eventually, because all the stuff is getting better. It's just a matter of figuring out how to make things go faster, and more, which they seem to be doing all the time. Soon, you'll be able to get high- resolution recordings digitally and downloadable. It's all going to be out there ... We've been recording at high resolution. Unfortunately, they don't come out on the CD that way but they go to the vinyl that way. When you hear it back that way [in the studio], it really does sound better. It's richer and there's a lot of dimension to it."
While many MMW fans have live concert tapes that they swap, the new live recording will show a different side to the music that was developed this year. "Because the music is open, every time we play these songs, it's different. Even now. So you can hear we're playing the same tune, but the solos are going to be different, the energy's going to be different. It's kind of a way to hear different versions of these tunes that we've codified on the records, to show what the other options are," says Medeski.
There's a lot more going on in the music of MMW, even though they were tossed into the "jam band" category years ago, as they played seamless sets that often glided from motif to motif, composition to composition. It wasn't unusual to have young people in tie-dye T-shirtsemblems of the Grateful Dead fansat their shows dancing care-free to the music. Performing on bills with the rock band Phishbacher certainly added to the jam band reputation.
Admits Medeski, "We were so surprised to have been thrown into that [jam band] category. We call our music homeless music. If anybody asks us now what we call our music, that's what we call it: homeless music. I understand why we were embraced by that [jam band]) community. It's great. My mother always said, 'Don't bite the hand that feeds you.' We've had mixed feelings about it over the years, but you really can't pick your audience. And if you do, then maybe you're not being true to yourself. If you're going out of your way to attract a certain audience, then you're preconceiving your art. It's not really art then, is it? It's not really expression, it's entertainment. And we're really expressing ourselves. So whoever comes, comes. What are you gonna do? [laughs] What can we do about it? You gotta love it."
"In all honesty, sometimes it's great, but there are elements that are a drag. Sometimes we want to go certain places that sometimes an audience is not ready to go. We tend to go there anyway. Hard part is, you can feel what the crowd wants. Sometimes they just want you to do this thing that they hear all these other bands do, just be funky and play a thousand notes forever. But we can't do it. It's an endless balancing act."
The Radiolarian series is a way of keeping the music interesting and creative to Medeski, Martin and Wood themselves. Says the pianist, "The whole idea really is about creating a certain energy when you play. Playing music that helps you get to that place to create that energy. Create a certain space. That's what we're trying to do, we're trying to create that space. The way we do that is by being inspired and being excited. If we're playing the same old stuff all the time, we don't get there and if we don't get there 'it' doesn't get there. We want it to get there. That's another reason we tried doing it this way this year."
The project goal, that desire to produce something that is art, is surely a creative act. That is all the more glaring because, according to Medeski, making the three albums was "in all honesty, financially, a disaster. All the clubs we did were small club tours. We made three records at a time when nobody's buying CDs anyway. We definitely didn't do it as a commercial venture."
The real payoff is the music and where it has come froman artistic aesthetic.
"We're happier than we've been in a long time, as a band," he says. "It reminds me of the old days. We're having fun playing. We're looking forward to getting together and playing all the time. It's exciting still, after 18 years. We don't have separate dressing rooms and travel in separate vehicles. We hang out. We eat dinner together. We talk. We play. It's great."
Medeski, Martin and Wood met in Brooklyn. "The great drummer Rakalam Bob Moses made us aware of each other when I was still living in Boston. We got together in New York City. I have to give Moses credit for being the guy who turned us on to each other. Then we got together and played and it was instant. Medeski and Wood were students at Boston's New England Conservatory of Music. They decided to move to New York City. Martin was already there and had taken some lessons with Moses. From the start, the trio experimented with various rhythms and genres. Gigs began to pile up in New York city, including spots like the Village Gate and the Knitting Factory. Then it was off on the road.
"We were in a van, then we bought a camper together. We got a trailer," says Medeski. "We really committed. We went on the road for a couple years and just stayed out. We played all over North America and built an audience. That's not really a jazz way of doing things, from what I've seen. It is, in the old sense, back in the '40s and '50s. That's what people were doing, driving all over. But in the past 20 years, 30 years, that hasn't been the mode. Most jazz musicians go to Europe [for more gigs and to reach audiences]."
The audiences grew. "It all worked out perfectly. I don't think we could do what we did 15 years ago now, doing every single thing ourselves. I don't think we could handle that at this point. We're lucky [currently] to be in a position where we can have some help doing everything."
The group's first album, Notes From The Underground, came out in 1992 on Amulet Records (originally issued by Gramavision). Next they signed with Gramavision, which lasted for a few albums before a jump to Blue Note records. The first release on their own Indirecto label was 2007's Out Louder, a collaboration with guitar master John Scofield. Building their music, and discography, in a grassroots fashion springing from a vast amount of touring from their camper, built a strong fan base and foundation for the band. Unlike some emerging jazz artists who jump on the scene with fanfare, only to fall by the wayside, this was not a house of cards being constructed, but one of brick and mortar.
"Absolutely," says Medeski. "We realize that. That's why we did it. That's the only way to build something, for it to be real, is to go out and do what you do. If people really like it, they'll be there. They'll come back, or tell their friends and you'll find the people who are interested. We certainly weren't getting much help from record companies or anything like thatat all. I don't think we ever once took tour support for a tour. I think maybe one time, going to Europe, we got a little help, we did a few things in Europe. We've always been very independent that way."
He adds, "Our very first record, Notes From the Underground, we made cassettes first, then we made CDs and we sold them at our gigs. We still own that. The very first record that we did, we did completely independently. Then we got signed on to Gramavision, which became Rykodisc. We silk-screened our own T-shirts and sold them after the show, off the stage. We've always been independent. Even when we were with record labels, we still kept an independent spirit. It was very important to us."
The topsy-turvy nature of the recording business now has many musicians wondering which way to turn. Some labels are still working. Others are going with independent backing. It's an industry in flux. "It's harder, there's no question," Medeski says. "The thing that's killing the music industry effects everybody, musicians of all kinds. We had a great run with Blue Note, but we were ready to be done when we were done. We were dying to be on our own so we could put stuff out how we wanted, when we wanted, the way we wanted, without any pressure or expectations. Blue Note is a fantastic record label ... For us, at the time, they were very hands-off ... That's the way it should be. They didn't ever put any pressure on us artistically. They let us do what we do. And did what they could with it. But I think we're better off now. We're happier as a band."
As for Medeski himself, he was born in Kentucky and grew up in Florida before his journey northward. "I guess I've played my whole life," he says of his early attraction to the piano. His father taught him to play blues and jazz standards on the piano at a very young age and he remained fascinated with the instrument. He enrolled in the Pinecrest School, a private institution where he studied classical music and theory. "I was into playing classical piano and then I would play songs that my parents liked as well. I'd just read the sheet music to some of these old tunes. Then I heard Oscar Peterson [on record] over at a friend's house playing some of those same songs. I was like: Holy shit. Really? You can play it like that? It doesn't have to be Lawrence Welk? You've got to be kidding me."
Medeski became more interested and started taking jazz lessons, first from Lee Shaw. Then his horizons began to expand beyond acoustic piano. "When I was up in Boston, I was in a blues band. Jazz and blues band, I guess. I started playing organ. A guy turned me on to all this organ music. I was only 19 years old. I never imagined I'd play it. When I was a kid I guess I played Fender Rhodes piano, but in all honesty I never took it seriously. It was what you did because they didn't have a piano," he says. "Obviously things have changed. I've fallen in love with all these old keyboards. It's great. I love it."
He was influenced by the lineage of great pianists, but cites Herbie Hancock, Joe Zawinul, Bill Evans, Bud Powell, Thelonious Monk, Sun Ra, Billy Preston and Stevie Wonder as highlights among them, as well as drawing inspiration from musicians like Jimi Hendrix and Wayne Shorter.
Of course, MMW has never been his sole outlet or claim to fame. He continues to explores classical music at times and can be heard in various jazz contexts as well. He has scored films. He's produced projects for groups including The Dirty Dozen Brass Band, gospel instrumentalists The Campbell Brothers and The Wood Brothers, which is his band mate Chris Wood with brother Oliver Wood on guitar. He's performed with New York-based musicians John Zorn, Marc Ribot, John Lurie and Steve Bernstein, among others, and has recorded with the likes of Rufus Wainwright, k.d. lang, Iggy Pop, Maceo Parker, The Blind Boys of Alabama, and Mavis Staples.
He also recorded with sax man James Carter on Heaven on Earth (Half Note), recorded live at New York City's Blue Note nightclub during an engagement and released this year, with a monster group consisting of Christian McBride, Adam Rogers, and Joey Baron.
"That was really a blast," he said. "It's a pretty exciting band. Every night was great. Hopefully we'll get out there and [promote] that some time. That would be great ... I've always been doing a lot of different stuff. I've got some stuff going on right now. Some stuff with Zorn ... I was involved with a Tony Williams Lifetime tribute at the beginning of this year with Vernon Reid, Cindy Blackman and Jack Bruce. We did a run at the Blue Note In Japan. That was really fun."
He adds, "I've been working on a lot of solo piano. I'm working with this guitar player right now and working on a few records with guitarist Tisziji Munoz. That band is Bob Moses, both Don Pate and John Lockwood on basses. We have a few records coming out. We're trying to finish them up right now."
His MMW mates are also busy with their own projects, but MMW is going as strong as ever and it appears that fans can continue to expect new and stimulating music for the foreseeable future.
"We certainly have the longevity of a rock band. We're not really a rock band. Our music is different every night. We re-invent stuff," explains Medeski. "We're improvising. We're communicating musically on stage. We're not just playing the same old radio hits from 18 years ago. We find ways to keep growing musically. If we weren't, we would stop. That's when we're going to be done. If we aren't still getting something out of it creatively, we're not going to do it any more. That's the kind of people we are as individuals ... We keep ourselves going. We all have other things and other interests and we respect that, honor that, for each other. That enables us to do what we do."
From left: John Medeski, Billy Martin, Chris Wood
Going forward? "You never know," he says, chuckling. He approaches saying the music is as good now as it has ever been, but then pulls back slightly on the reins. "I don't know, it's not really for me to say musically whether it's as good as it's ever been because I have no perspective on it. We just do it. But it in terms as what's going on between us as a group, it's as good as it's ever been. Whatever that means, we'll see."
One thing for sure, MMW will stay inventive because the members won't have it any other way, as their discography, exemplified in the Radiolarians package, attests. This won't be a stodgy outfit.
Medeski, Martin & Wood, Radiolarians: The Evolutionary Set (Indirecto, 2009)
Medeski, Martin & Wood, Radiolarians III (Indirecto Records, 2009)
Medeski, Martin & Wood, Radiolarians II (Indirecto Records, 2009)
James Carter/John Medeski/Christian McBride/Adam Rogers/Joey Baron, Heaven on Earth (Half Note, 2009)
Medeski, Martin & Wood, Radiolarians I (Indirecto Records, 2008)
Medeski, Martin & Wood, Zaebos: The Book of Angels Vol. 11 (Tzadik, 2008)
Medeski, Martin & Wood, Let's Go Everywhere (Little Monster, 2008)
Medeski, Martin & Wood, Out Louder (Indirecto Records, 2007)
Medeski, Martin & Wood, End of the World Party (Just In Case) (Blue Note, 2004)
Medeski, Martin & Wood, The Dropper (Blue Note, 2002)
John Scofield, A Go Go, (Verve, 1998)
Medeski, Martin & Wood, Shak Man, (Gramavision, 1996)
Medeski, Martin & Wood, Friday Afternoon in the Universe, (Gramavision, 1995)
Medeski, Martin & Wood, It's a Jungle In Here, (Gramavision, 1993)
Medeski, Martin & Wood, Notes From the Underground, (Amulet Records, 1992)