MSMW: Spontaneous Compositions
In the mid-1990s, John Scofield hired Medeski, Martin and Wood as his backing band on a new studio album, A Go Go. The collaboration was a hit, exposing Scofield’s music to a young, eager audience and cementing MMW’s reputation as one of the scene’s hottest combos. Since then, the quartet has occasionally collaborated on-and-off the onstage, though Scofield has never spent a significant amount of time on the road with the acid-jazz collective. Earlier this year, however, Scofield entered the studio with MMW for a second time, producing a fresh, improv-heavy new album, Out Louder. Unlike A Go Go, which found MMW supporting Scofield on his compositions, Out Louder was pieced together in the studio by through a series of loose outlines and spontaneous jams. Below John Medeski and Chris Wood wax poetic on collaborating with Scofield, recording Out Louder and why their next album is a kid’s classic. [editor’s note: for a closer look at John Scofield and his thoughts on Out Louder be sure to check out Mike Greenhaus’ interview in the November issue of Relix]
MG- So many years after A Go Go, why make a new album with John Scofield now?
JM: We’d talked about making a new album together for years. We’d see each other at festivals and occasionally play together. But, really, the reason this album came out now is because we are both between record deals. MMW actually has its own record label now and, though it wasn’t our original plan to have this be the first record on our new independent journey, John was free and we had fun doing A Go Go so we went for it.
MG- In what ways did you try to make Out Louder different than A Go Go?
JM: We wanted this record to be more collaborative and more improvisational in its approach than A Go Go. MMW has written a lot of music together. We write by improvising, then go back and sculpt songs out of those jams. I feel it’s the only way people can write music together. If you’re alone, you are going to sit and work on a song and develop it from a true impulse. The same thing happens when you work with other people—-it comes from an impulse. But, when you write by yourself, it’s called composing and when you write with others it’s called jamming.
CW: In this scene the goal is to react to the music and create spontaneous compositions. We’re not here to wank-off and play our best licks. Our goal is make a lot of great compositions and, to do that, you have to let your ego go.
JM: We worked our impulses into songs: it’s just the compositional process translated to the group dynamic. I feel an improvisation is just a spontaneous composition. The song “Down The Tube” is actually 11 minutes of unadulterated improvisation. One of the things we, as a band, do best together is create spontaneous music. Scofield is at the level where he can do that too and it was really fun for us to just create music together.
MG- Did you run through any specific exercises to prepare for your recording sessions?
JM: By the time MMW got together we’d already spent years doing those exercises in school and what not. So I think they are kind of engrained in our mind. But I think bands in this scene should play around with those exercises more. The whole downtown jazz scene we come from is about exploring different methods and exercises. One thing we did do in the studio with John, on songs like “In Case The World Changes Its Mind,” was play simple music on purpose, knowing that we’d layer those songs and that he’d would add some extra guitar tracks. So we used more of a mixing approach on some numbers.
CW: We did some practicing together where we’d rehearse a tune and then improvise around those pre-written tunes in the studio. But, ultimately, it was about hanging out and making a connection. When we went into the studio the first thing we did was set up in the same room together. Normally everyone is isolated in a studio, but we wanted to be able to interact with each other. We found that we can play more freely and react better in that setting.
MG- What was the process of turning those jams into songs like?
JM: It was actually really easy. With Uninvisible and End of the World Party we had so much stuff to sift through. There really was a lot of work to do after those records. Fortunately we also had John King to sift through the material with us. We mixed Out Louder in about same about of time it took us to record it which is rare. Part of it is Scotty Hard who we know so well and who is comfortable working alongside us.
MG- Looking back for a bit, when did you first discover Scofield’s music?
JM: The first time we ever played together is when we made A Go Go . We were in Hawaii when he first approached us. Ever year our break would be to go to Hawaii without an audience [laughs]. Now we need real space from each other, but back them we were really working out our groove. We’d sit there and play for a really long time and work out the subtleties of our sound. But once and a while we’d leave the jungle to get a tuna to grill for the week. We’d also check our 1-800 number and one day we had this message from Scofield asking us to play on his album. At first I thought it was [Club D’Elf’s] Mike Rivard pulling a fast one on us.
CW: I would listen to Scofield with my brother—-he turned me onto his early records. So, I had known about him since Junior High and had been listening to his old funk, fusion stuff with Dennis Chambers when I was going to school at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston. He came through with this great supergroup featuring Charles Hayden.
MG- What were your expectations going into A Go Go?
JM: I didn’t know what was going to happen. At the time I envisioned something more collaborative, but John had a very strong idea of how he wanted to make the record, so we went with it and put our stink on his songs. My personal approach is to do as little or as much as the music calls for. When I sit in with people in the studio—-and I have been involved with accompanying people since I started playing when I was 5—-I sit back. I’m not interested in showing off. For instance, working with the Campbell Brothers is more about weeding through material and helping with their arrangements. I plaid a little bit because they asked me and I played a little more when I worked with the Dirty Dozen because we also wrote a lot in the studio. But with the Wood Brothers I just sat there and let them do their thing. I didn’t play at all! I just realized this a month ago, but I actually sit behind Chris and Bill when they play. It’s a pianist’s job.
CW: This is a group record, while A Go Go was John’s compositions. He wrote the tunes with us in mind and let us come up with some of own parts, but he was the leader. By no means was he a dictator, but it was his record and his label. With this album, we kind of threw him into our world. He came down to DUMBO in Brooklyn and spent time in our basement recording studio. It’s kind of a grungy world we have down there and I think it brought a side out of him that we love, the side that is associated with playing with Miles Davis and with these New Orleans rhythms. He actually got some different sounds as well—-he didn’t use a telecaster. He really stepped out and made some different noises.
MG- Have you noticed any changes in Scofield’s playing since A Go Go?
CW: What’s great about Scofield is that he has such a recognizable sound, but he still grows. He is one of those guys who will always be playing. On tour, we are going to play material from both records and some of the covers we played when we sat in with each other over the years. John also has a record of Ray Charles songs and MMW plays a lot of Ray Charles music so, hopefully, we will draw from that as well.
JM: Well, we’ve never really toured with him so it will be great to spend time with him on the road. Billy’s wife was having a baby so we brought out Clyde Stubblefield in his place after A Go Go.. We are going out this fall and next summer in Europe. At the festival we’d play, we’d start with some of his material and then try to do something else. When he sat in on our stuff it really worked and I’m excited to see how that plays out. There is a real connection and that crosses over into its own thing.
MG- Have you played any material from off Out Louder live yet?
CW: This summer we were toured Europe and we played Ljubljana [on 6/29/2006]. Scofield was there with a trio and sat in with us. It was the first time we played material from Out Louder live. We didn’t rehearse much for the record so it was the best way to approach the gig, spontaneously.
MG- Chris, how did playing with the Wood Brothers influence your work on this album?
CW: I got to say, working with my brother and playing really defined songs really made me a better musician. We played material which was set in stone, but we still had to make each performance great and unique. There is a lot of cross-over because you want to play the material as if it was the first time. I think it really made me a more well rounded musician.
MG- John, over the summer you debuted a new band, the Itch [with Eric Krasno and Adam Deitch]. How did that project develop?
JM: I played this really fun trio gig with Will Bernard and Stanton Moore and those guys came and sat in. It felt really fresh and good and then All Good asked me to do something. They were available and I asked them so we went with it.
MG- Out Louder features a number of intriguing covers. Who brought these selections to the table?
JM: We brought in Peter Tosh’s “Legalize It” and John chose “Julia.” John’s daughter sings and is, actually, who introduced him to our music. She was singing with him and they played “Julia.” So, he brought it to us and it came out great. For me, the whole idea of doing someone else’s song means you have to express something different. Otherwise there is no reason to do covers.
MG- Is it true MMW is working on a kid’s album?
CW: We did a whole kids album for this label Little Monsters. We are not quite done mastering it, but it should be out this winter. It’s a lot of stuff we composed. I don’t think any of us feel you have to play down to kids. My daughter loves the weirdest, darkest stuff MMW has done. But this is definitely a kid’s record, with lots of singing and lyrics. In some ways, though, the compositions aren’t that different than your average MMW compositions. I think a lot of our music, in general, is kid’s music.
Mike Greenhaus blogs at www.greenhauseffect.com on his way to work each morning