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John Medeski: Strong as Ever with MMW

By Published: December 28, 2009

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 from—an 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

Bob Moses
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

John Scofield
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 that—at 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."

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