A Fireside Chat With John Medeski

AAJ Staff By

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We're all really interested in creative music and growing. We're not interested in being rock stars.
Medeski, Martin and Wood presents the possibilities of jazz to a generation familiar with the iPod, text messaging, and dubs. While traditionalists minimalize their musical merit, it remains difficult to ignore the trio's profound connection with contemporary culture. It is all the more consequential when considering MMW gained their recognition primarily through grassroots avenues, without the benefit of corporate publicity machines their counterparts were afforded. And as much as jazz music's old guard disregards MMW's jazz worth, John Medeski (unedited and in his own words), Billy Martin, and Chris Wood not only endure, but profit from being "alternative."

All About Jazz: How's the new record coming along?

John Medeski: It's coming (laughing). It is almost done. We're just finishing it up. Because we're working with John King (Dust Brothers) and he's busy, so it is taking longer than we thought, but it is basically done and we're just getting the cover and the order together. Unfortunately, we thought the record would be coming out a little sooner, so we already set up a tour that we're going to be playing with The Roots and 311 in June and July.

AAJ: A preview?

JM: It is hard for me to put into words what it is, but I would say it is in some ways less expansive than some of the other ones. I compare it somewhat to Shack Man in the sense that the songs are shorter and there are less extended solos and things like that. It is music that when we play them live will, obviously, open them up more. Each piece is representative of a more condensed nugget. There's a lot of layers on it. A lot of layers are keyboards, but the drum beats and bass lines are definitely tighter and straighter.

AAJ: Although Medeski, Martin and Wood has received non-alternative press, MMW still maintains its core cult following. Do you attribute that grassroots dedication to the fact that MMW is essentially a touring band?

JM: I think part of it is that and I think one of the keys is that kind of artists we have is interested in music that keeps growing and evolving. It is what we try to do and what we do do. Each of us is working on new projects and new things and growing as musicians individually, so when we get together, we're able to bring new ideas and try to keep it fresh. A lot of new music is based on improvisation, so every night we play, it is different even if we play the same songs. Although the last tour we did, we didn't play one song twice the whole tour. Every night was new music. We really try to stretch, so people will come to several gigs in a row because it's not like a band where they put out a record and they're in there doing a show based on that record, and it is the same show every night and the same set of music, played the same way with the same solos. For us, it is different every night. We draw on our entire history of music together. We play anything from our first record to things that we create just for that night and will never happen again.

AAJ: Does that reflect MMW's longevity?

JM: Yeah, the kind of people we are, it is the only way we could have stayed together that long. We're all really interested in creative music and growing. We're not interested in being rock stars. That's not why any of us got into the music in the first place. It wasn't about that. It was for the music. We love playing music. I don't think any of us imagined we'd be doing what we're doing right now, that we would have ended up being in a band that has stayed together this long. It wasn't what people did when we first started coming out. The jazz scene has been a very mercenary scene. People play gigs with whoever they can and guys play in different bands all the time with different combinations. Great people play together in various combinations, but there are no real bands. When we first came up, we didn't even know that we were going to do this. It just evolved. It happened because we had been part of that. That's the way we had to do it, so we played in different bands and had to do different things to make a living. And then we started playing together and it just happened. We realized that there was something going on and there seemed to be an appeal. We went out and targeted a younger audience, a more vital audience, and people came and started coming out. The audience growing kept us going out and doing it. We felt that there was a need for it out there. A lot of musicians we love and respect weren't doing that. They weren't going out in America and giving their music up. They're having to go to Europe to make a living. We realized that the only way young people are going to hear this kind of improvisational jazz spirit in music is somebody comes and plays for them because they don't know.

AAJ: And the youth can't afford jazz clubs' a ticket and drink minimums.

JM: A lot of these kids are not going to go to a jazz club because it is stuffy and not necessarily a good environment to see music. It is not a scene. It is a bunch of guys with beards scratching their faces (laughing). They give you the feeling that you need to have an education to understand music and I don't think that's true. It doesn't hurt. The more you learn, the more you listen, the better. A lot of clubs are tourists clubs. You have a two drink minimum and the sets are short and they kick you in and out. That is not a real scene anymore. It's not what it was in the '50s. The Blue Note and all those clubs are not what the scene was like in the '50s.

AAJ: So MMW is cool with hipping the youth to Sun Ra or John Zorn?

JM: That has always been our goal. We just play music from our hearts so it is really hard to know what we're doing. We do what we do and do the best we can and play what we feel. Ultimately, we're just really expressing ourselves, so it is hard to know what is good or not or whether it matters. But what makes us feel good is to find out when we look on our website, in one of our chatrooms, and find out that kids are going out and checking out Charles Mingus for the first time or Duke Ellington or Coltrane. If people from hearing us can go find better music, it is great.

AAJ: Based on MMW's website, you advocate your fans to get involved politically.

JM: Well, you want people to smarten up a little because it is a strange world right now and it has been easy in this country to not have to deal with that. I spend a lot of time myself not dealing and doing things under the radar. But it is time now, where it's not working anymore. You have to get back to where America started out to be.

AAJ: And an example of that is this country's failing drug policy.

JM: Absolutely. It's ludicrous. I see it as an extension of Prohibition. Alcohol laws vary from state to state and how we can't buy wine from our own country and have it shipped from state to state. Wine made in California, I can't buy it in New York from the winery. I have to go through distributors. That's a way of keeping that mafia thing alive. They are not going to legalize drugs because they can make more money off it if it is illegal. Whether or not people should do drugs is another story. Everything has its place and it can be tragic for some people. But it being illegal is what makes it more attractive. That's my opinion. It's weird to prohibit a plant. If drugs are going to be illegal, then sugar should be illegal. It's another nasty, white powder that bleaches the ground and body of minerals.

AAJ: Listening pleasures?

JM: I've been listening to the Ghost Dog soundtrack Japanese version, which RZA did from Wu-Tang. I've been enjoying that. I've been listening to a lot of Campbell Brothers. I'm listening to a lot of early gospel stuff.

Visit Medeski, Martin & Wood on the web at www.medeskimartinandwood.com

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