The matchup is so unusual that it's alluring before a word is spoken or a note played: Marian McPartland, 85, the straight-laced matronly host of public radio's Piano Jazz spending an hour with John Medeski, 40, perhaps the most recognizable pioneer of modern acid jazz as one third of Medeski, Martin and Wood. She plays an acoustic piano; he has forty to fifty keyboards and considers them all essential. Of the fifteen Piano Jazz albums released to date, featuring guests ranging from Oscar Peterson to Bruce Hornsby, this seems the oddest meeting of the minds.
But it works, maybe all the better because of the range of ideas exchanged.
Medeski is no stranger to McPartland's show, saying he taped it during the 1980s when musicians like Chick Corea and Joanne Brackeen were featured. And McPartland has a progressive sideCorea's appearance occurred at a similar career stage as Medeski's, and non-jazz performers like Steely Dan and Elvis Costello have been among her other guests.
The July 7, 2003 interview with Medeski features eight discussion and eight performance tracks, starting with classics and ending with Medeski originals and improvisations. The conversation is somewhat one-sided in favor of tradition, with Medeski talking more about his reverence for players like Thelonius Monk than his own style, maybe the biggest overall weakness of this album. But one of the strongest is hearing how some of Medeski's playing links him to those masters.
His treatment of Monk's "Be-Lue Bolivar Ba-Lues Are" is recognizable, but the dense chordings and right-hand embellishments are unmistakably Medeski. He dances and counterpunches around McPartland on "Bemsha Swing"with bassist Gary Mazzaroppi providing a welcome and steady rhythmcreating the kind of warped acoustic mainstream heard on MMW's Tonic (Blue Note, 2000). When McPartland comments afterward on the tune capturing Monk's "sardonic sense of humor," it's easy to picture Monk and Medeski as similar-thinking artists for their respective eras.
There's some role reversal, like when Medeski plays it relatively straight on "Out Of This World"he says he "loves the old tunes" he played as a teenager during country club gigs. One of his own ballads, "Otis," played as a duet with Mazzaroppi, shows he can be lyrical without a signature attitude.
McPartland, while hardly cutting edge, feeds her guest taunt lead lines on a slow and lengthy collaboration of "Caravan," and joins him for the improvised discordance of "Free Piece" which, while intriguing, probably ends wisely after 94 seconds. Medeski wraps up with his "Bubble House," an up-tempo MMW piece that conveys a sense of the show traveling a timeline and reaching its final destination.
Like all Piano Jazz shows, this one requires undivided attention, but the discussion never gets so deep the average listener gets lost. This CD should have a wider appeal than most in the series, attracting younger listeners who find other guests too sedate, while giving the older generation an easy-to-stomach way of discovering what the young ones are ingesting at the jam band clubs.
Personnel: John Medeski: piano; Marian McPartland: piano; Gary Mazzaroppi: bass.