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Published: 2013/01/31
by Mike Greenhaus

Medeski Scofield Martin & Wood: Still A Go Go

Shifting back to your Terrapin shows, how did you approach organizing the setlists?

JM: Phil would let us know what he wanted to play for each night. Then, he told me to check out different Phil Lesh & Friends eras to listen to. I suggested a few songs, and we did some of them.

JS: For Phil it is all about the improvisation. He is the only rock star I have met where intellectually, as a concept, he wants it to be spontaneous. He doesn’t care if there are mistakes. He wants there to be some magic stuff—more than just playing the right chords.

MMW also recently released a new acoustic live album, Free Magic. It came out after you celebrated your 20th anniversary—and MMW started as an acoustic group. Why did you decide to release an acoustic album at this stage in your career?

CW: The tour where that music came from was 5 or 6 years ago. And the reason we didn’t put it out sooner—[mimicking an advertising voiceover] on our new record Free Magic, out now [Laughter.]—is the same reason the live MSMW record didn’t come out sooner. It is hard to listen to yourself so close to when a show happened. You need time to go by to have any sort of perspective at all. If you are going to produce yourself you need time to separate yourself—to forget and to really hear the music objectively. We tried to put that MSMW live album out but we couldn’t—you can’t listen to yourself. You remember how you felt at the gig and you are too caught up. You remember too much. A few years go by and you can really put the recordings on and judge it for what it is. So I think the timing really worked out where our 20th anniversary happened, and we felt ready to tackle all that stuff and make the live record happen. It seemed like a logical next step and was a fun way for us to tour—that’s how we began, as a piano trio.

JM: We always feel like we are doing [all of our musical sides] but we don’t have time to always go back and listen to what we just did because we are moving onto what’s next. We also all have individual projects. We always think about where we are going. It is hard to sit around with all these tapes. We are not really a nostalgic band.

CW: If you multi-track record an entire tour it is hard to sort through. You have 10 versions of all these songs—it takes long boring plane rides and van rides where you have nothing else to do but sit there and listen to all that.

BM: Thanks to Chris’ long boring tour rides [with Wood Brothers] it has really helped us to get this album out.

CW: I was good at starting. Once I said, “I like this song,” then you get someone else to listen to it and say, “I don’t like this song.” But it is cool because we’ve started the process and something is happening. If they don’t like that version, they have to find one that they do like. The ball is in their court and, eventually, we all come to a consensus. Democracy takes a long time, let’s face it.

JM: We started as an acoustic band and expanded from there for touring reasons. I don’t think we thought, “Let’s do an acoustic record to restart after our 20th anniversary.” It has always been one of the things we do, and we like to do it. It creates a different vibe, and it is more intimate. For us, it forces us to listen and play in a different way. We like to do it to keep that connection.

BM: It also coincided with this acoustic tour we just did. It was really only our second official acoustic tour so it made sense to release at that time. What I love about the record is that it is like chamber music. You are really hearing each of us in a different way. There is a lot more dynamics and space to listen to each other. John has a prepared piano and all these other instruments that he brings out, which are acoustic. He has a shepherd’s flute. We get into these other worlds and it is a nice change. All these other types of composing and improvising comes out after these acoustic songs.

JM: It is almost like when we play with different people. It brings out different voices—if you really are improvising and interacting it is going to be different. Look at John Scofield, who has his more straight-head jazz project and the Uberjam. That is another way we are similar, we like to do all these different projects.

CW: Yeah, we like playing on the Jam Cruise and when we go up there we know it is going to be a party. There is no question—we are dealing with a deck of a ship where people are drinking and dancing and talking. It is nice and it is fun but what we liked about the acoustic tour is that it sets up this whole different environment where we are playing concerts in this seated, listing environment. You can hear a pin drop.

JS: We are doing Jam Cruise without a roadie—schlepping our own gear—a sign of the future. Maybe the fans will help with our gear!

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