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John Medeski: MMW at 25

Although this year marks the 25th anniversary of Medeski Martin & Wood you didn’t find the musicians celebrating it with a timely set of tour dates and album releases. Instead, the members continued a hiatus that began over a year ago and pursued other endeavors—keyboardist John Medeski performed solo dates plus shows with John Scofield, the Meters, the Dear Jerry: Let’s Play 2 concert and recorded with Saudade and FIREJELLY, percussionist Billy Martin produced new music, art and a book and bassist Chris Wood maintained an active schedule in the Wood Brothers.

The trio did perform together as an opening act for the Motet’s headlining gig last July at Red Rocks Amphitheatre. Headlining concerts on Oct. 18, 19 and 20 at where it all started for them at Le Poisson Rouge (formerly the Village Gate) were scrapped at the last minute when Wood had emergency surgery. (They’re rescheduled for Jan. 16-18.) His bandmates honored the dates by performing with previous collaborator Nels Cline on one night and the Campbell Brothers on the other.

Now, the only 25th anniversary headlining performances this year will occur when MMW play Nov. 18 and 19 at On Air Studio in Cleveland. They will be joined by previous collaborators, including: Marc Ribot, Steve Bernstein, Cyro Baptista, DJ Logic and DJ Olive.

From the beginning Medeski Martin & Wood’s approached music as if it was a palette of colors that ranged from snow white to dead of night black. The instrumental trio opted for New York’s downtown art-music scene because they viewed the jazz outlets stifling to the band members’ musical ambition; one that encouraged improvisation, experimentation and developing new sonic structures that embraced the musical styles of the past and present.

The band’s wide open approach to jazz led them to incorporate funk, hip-hop, avant-noise, spoken word and much much more.

As Medeski explained in their bio, Martin’s groove-oriented rhythms lay a foundation that pull in listeners who may not readily embrace jazz or improvisational music. That allows him to “get in there and infect their minds more easily, and Chris can lay it down to keep them from losing it.”

It’s an adventurous combination that has worked when playing tunes from their 21 releases as well as totally improvised performances plus studio and onstage collaborations with legendary guitarist John Scofield.

I had a conversation with Medeski as he waited at Newark Liberty International Airport for his flight to California. It’s the morning after the New York shows that took place in lieu of the MMW gigs. He is headed west to play at Hangtown Music Festival in Placerville, California with Martin in another ad hoc configuration that was originally to feature MMW. Today, it will be a one-of-a-kind ensemble with Kirk Joseph of the Dirty Dozen Brass Band (tuba) and Will Bernard (guitar) dubbed Medeski Martin & Mad Skillet. Then, it’s back on a plane the next day to perform with John Zorn and later in DRKWAV with Adam Deitch and Skerik as part of Brooklyn Comes Alive music festival.

JPG: You’re a very busy man. Playing at home then crisscrossing the country within two days. Is your equipment going out with you or do you have instruments set up in California…?

JM: In California I’ll rent stuff. In New York City, it depends. If I work it out I’ll bring my stuff. Cleveland, I’ll bring my stuff.

JPG: This goes with not only the last-minute shows and lineups you just played with but also with your other projects and Medeski Martin & Wood, to deal with each situation are you very compartmentalized and disciplined? Do you meditate or do anything to focus on being in the moment?

JM: I don’t consider myself disciplined but I can be disciplined when I need to be (laughs). This is certainly the life, to be traveling a lot playing music. The actual playing part is the fun part. It’s what I’ve always done. It’s what I do. Other than having to learn music and prepare for whatever show I’m doing, that’s the good part. That’s between an hour and three hours a night. The rest of the time is the traveling, getting there and setting up, and that’s the hard part.

I do have certain spiritual practices in my life that definitely make everything make sense and make it easier. For me, and maybe it’s because of the nature of the music that I play and it’s something that MMW cultivated over 25 years, is that there’s no one way to prepare for any day or any gig. I have done that in my life where I have certain things that I do everyday—routine, exercise and stretches—but, in general, I found that it’s to tune into what’s necessary for that particular day. It could be staying in a hotel room and stretching out, taking a bath. It could be going out and having a crazy fun dinner with a bunch of friends. You really have to know where you’re at and what you need because, really, the whole bottom line is you want to be 100 percent or more at show time. So, if you need a nap you take a nap or if taking a nap is not going to do it you don’t take a nap. It’s really about being in the flow and knowing from experience what you need.

That’s what I do. The thing is I’ve played with a lot of different people so I also adapt to whoever I’m playing with in terms of what their rhythm is. When I’m out with [John] Scofield we gotta go out with those guys and have the afternoon espresso (laughs). When I’m by myself I make green tea. I toured solo piano in Europe and that’s a whole other thing. When I had my solo piano tour in Europe I would kick everyone out of the dressing room 20 minutes before the show and I did a little, I guess you would call it a meditation. At soundcheck I would do certain exercises on the piano. It would take about 15 minutes, some little warm-up things. Now, for Medeski Martin & Wood I don’t do that so much because I want to connect with the people I’m playing with.

Last night we did this gig with Nels Cline, Steven Bernstein, Julian Lage, Chris Lightcap and Billy [Martin] and me. We soundchecked and then we went for a walk in the East Village and connected on that level. We don’t see each other a lot. That particular configuration had never played together altogether. We all played with each other in different situations. It was nice to connect and everybody dispersed on MacDougal Street, got a little food and then we met up again…everyday it’s different.

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