John Medeski has been the unofficial leader of Medeski, Martin and Wood (MMW) for nearly a decade now. Since their arrival on the scene in 1992, many critics have embraced this self-described “groove band” and the trio has cultivated a huge fan base in cities across America. Their music covers a broad range of genres, often fusing jazz with hip hop, funk, soul and rock to create danceable grooves. The trio first began playing together in the early 1990s with Medeski on piano at New York’s experimental Knitting Factory.
Medeski originally moved to New York in the late 1980s after studying at the New England Conservatory of Music with his heart set on pursuing a career as a jazz pianist. He was soon turned off by the highly competitive nature of the New York jazz scene and set his sights on creating “dance grooves with a jazz process.” He joined with bassist Chris Wood and drummer Billy Martin to form MMW and the group was soon a favorite at the Knitting Factory and in the New York dance scene. Since 1992, Medeski and his cohorts have released six full-length records as well as two shorter collections of dance remixes.
Medeski has remained the driving force behind the group. He is himself a master of the keyboards, playing everything from a Hammond B-3, to a clavinet, to a Wurlitzer electric piano. The eclecticism can be seen heard on MMW records and witnessed in live performances. A typical MMW show might begin with a cover of a Duke Ellington classic, then flow into something more like Sly Stone’s “Everyday People,” featured on MMW’s latest record Combustication, before ending with hip-hop grooves driven by the sound of frantic movements at the turntable by a guest DJ. Despite their ability to effectively mix genres, Medeski has always maintained that the central element of their music is improvisation.
The trio maintains a rigorous tour schedule. Yet, Medeski has had the opportunity to work with a number of influential musicians, including guitarist John Scofield and hip-hop jazz fusion pioneer Guru. He has also made frequent trips to New Orleans to jam with some of the city’s finest musicians, including Michael Ray and Clarence Johnson, III. He also produced this year’s highly acclaimed release by the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, Buck Jump.
On Saturday, December 4th, Medeski will team up with John Scofield, Clarence Johnson, III and Roger Lewis and Gregory Davis of the Dirty Dozen Brass Band again for a “Superjam” at the Howlin’ Wolf. Moreover, the jam session will spotlight bassist George Porter, Jr. and drummer Zigaboo Modeliste of the original Meters band–a band that has perhaps influenced Medeski (and countless others) more than any other.
During a telephone conversation recently while Medeski was on tour with MMW, I had a chance to talk with him about his love of New Orleans funk as well as a number of other topics.
So how’s the tour going?
It’s cool. Nice to be able to travel around the country and have that audience response and all that. I’m in St. Louis right now, right up the river from where you are.
I read someplace that you all consider yourselves to be at your best in a live setting.
Yeah, well you know it’s real! A lot of people say that about us. I think that’s kind of what we are about. Our music is improvised and that’s done best in a live setting.
I’ve been listening to your latest record [with Medeski, Martin and Wood] Combustication. Could you talk a little about Combustication, which is like your eighth record, right?
Right, well, including the remixes.
Do you think your records have evolved over the years?
Evolved? Yes, naturally, but we don’t like to look it at like that though. We just do it. That’s somebody else’s gig…we just keep developing our groove and the improvisational spirit of our music. Kind of like how when we first started we were using a lot of acoustic instruments and we switched to organ and keyboards and that sort of stuff…it just happened out of necessity. We started touring and there were no pianos anywhere. We couldn’t afford to rent a piano so I started using organ. And then I start getting into all that stuff, electric keyboards too and the Hammond B-3 organ that I play a lot now…
Your work with Martin and Wood has been called everything from “unjazz” to “groove” to “jazz-rock,” partly because of your use of electric instruments and your fusing of genres like rock and hip-hop with jazz. What do you think about this fascination some music writers have with labeling your music?
It’s been that way since we first started. Different things have came along. The acid jazz movement came along and then we started calling our music that but then we decided what we were doing wasn’t really acid jazz…I’m not that interested in [labeling] anymore. We play music. I do think labeling is bad for music as a whole because it’s really just about making money and marketing. Anything that only is about money is bad for music.
It does seem that jazz has been your greatest influence, especially with your emphasis on improvisation.
Yeah, absolutely. But there are a lot of other musics that have improvisation. But, you’re right, jazz is definitely the grandmaster of improvisation…I started as a kid playing classical music. Even classical music improvises and that got lost at the turn of the century and now it’s resurfaced again. Improvisation is what we’re really about above anything…it’s definitely very challenging; everything has its challenges though. My biggest influences are jazz musicians like Herbie Hancock, Sun Ra, Bill Evans, Ellington, Monk, Bud Powell, Cecil Taylor, all those people. I could go on listing forever…Ahmad Jamal, Jimmy McGriff…
Was your decision to sign with Blue Note related to your love of jazz?
We talked to a lot of different labels, but they seemed like the best all around bet for us. They’ve been a great jazz label for a long time although now it is a very different label than it was. The main thing is that the people [at Blue Note] are all truly music fans. Financially, we could’ve done just as well staying on our own but we wanted to reach a more international audience–Europe, Australia, South America–and Blue Note has the ability to help us do that. We’ve been to South America to play and people were very excited, so hopefully that relationship [with Blue Note] will work out in that way.
So tell me about your New Orleans connection…
New Orleans music, wow, it’s…James Booker is a major influence. There’s so many! New Orleans always sort of paralleled what was going on in music. They always sort of had their own thing. Like Eddie Bo, who can do a lot of different things. Musically, it’s really its own universe of music and that’s what I love about it. I tend to gravitate towards the funk. I haven’t delved as deeply into some of the other forms. Now I’m starting to get into Dixieland and that early jazz period even though it’s not what I do.
You worked with the Dirty Dozen Brass Band on their last record. How did that happen?
I remember being in high school [in Fort Lauderdale, Florida] and that stuff was really popular. I just loved their music. They’ve been around for a long time. From them, I learned a lot really. They showed me around a lot…I got to check out some of the more traditional [brass bands] and get really connected to the roots of the brass bands. I wanted to work with them and when I got the call that it was going to happen, I was definitely psyched. I think it worked out pretty well. I kind of let them do their thing a lot when we were making the record, kind of letting things happen…
A couple of the members of the Dirty Dozen are going to be playing at the upcoming show here in New Orleans as well as George Porter, Jr. and Zigaboo Modeliste from the Meters. I read that the Meters were one of your biggest influences. Are you excited about playing with…
Wow! George Porter’s playing too that night?
Yeah, that’s what it said on the press release I got.
Man, I thought someone else was playing. Well, I know John Scofield is too. The Meters are the Bible really in terms of funk. I mean literally. Playing with people like that–I get the most out of that as a musician. It’s great to connect with these people. There are so many New Orleans musicians who I respect. Michael Ray, he’s keeping it alive. Professor Longhair, he was amazing…I admire him so much though I would never try to play like him. Like Tipitina’s? I love that place.
Is New Orleans one of your favorite places to play?
It’s one of my favorite places period, really. We play a lot there. I love how late it’s open! I love how you can walk around with a drink in your hand. I love the food, like that place Uglesich’s. The more time I spend there the more I love it. Doing the Dirty Dozen record, I got to hang out a lot. I love that there is a musical community that tries to take care of itself. New Orleans has a love of music, even more so than a place like New York where on any given night you can see any number of world class musicians. There is more respect for the art and the artist. It’s one of the few places where a band could be playing in a tiny bar and people are still dancing. I mean I know it has its dark side and the tourist scene and all that, but it’s definitely a place where music is appreciated and where people can sort of straddle the border…
Are you working on any other collaboration with New Orleans artists?
Not yet, although I definitely want to. I’ve been talking to some people out there about maybe doing something with gospel. [Medeski, Martin and Wood] is working on a new record and we did an acoustic run at a really small club in New York and we really liked it so I think the next record might be mostly acoustic.