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John Medeski: The Last Waltz and Beyond

The last time I spoke with John Medeski, he was at Newark Liberty International Airport terminal shortly before leaving on a flight to California for a performance at the Hangtown Music Festival. The announcement of the “The Last Waltz 40 Tour: A Celebration of the 40th Anniversary of The Last Waltz” presents a reason to have another conversation with him wherein I find out that the supremely busy keyboardist traveled coast to coast twice for gigs since our last phone call.

He admits that it’s difficult to turn down the numerous opportunities that come his way including the Last Waltz, which debuted over two nights last April during New Orleans JazzFest and returned during Warren Haynes’ annual Christmas Jam.

“Now that Medeski Martin & Wood is doing less, I have a lot of other stuff that I want to do. It’s hard when Jack DeJohnette calls me or the Last Waltz is happening…it’s like an embarrassment of riches. It’s hard to say, “No”, to these things” he said, laughing. “It’s an endless balancing act.”

JPG: What was your reaction when the producers of the Last Waltz 40 think asked you to participate? Were you excited that it was the Band or “Hmmmm, that’s interesting. This should be cool.”?

JM: I was both. I’ve been down to the Barn for a lot of the Rambles with Levon Helm and I’ve played with Amy Helm now and then. I love that music.

I play pretty much anything. I like a lot of different music. I don’t lump things into…I don’t know if it’s because of where I grew up and the music scene there at that time but I never really felt the boundaries around music that seem to be so prevalent for a lot of people. Music is music and I like music. I’ve always done a lot of different stuff. I did Broadway, jazz, classical…played everything. That’s the way it was.

There were people who came from certain places and certain scenes but they all cross-pollinated. That’s how it’s always been in New York. New York City was one of those great scenes to anonymously develop. “He does this and he does that.” There was never any of that. I’m not a victim of that mentality.

So, I was familiar with the Band’s music. They were always one of the great groups from that era. What they did is kind of the same thing. A lot of bands from that time, that’s what they were doing. They were listening to blues and other traditional music and then just by the nature of being who they were, making it their own, doing their own version of it. When they played a blues tune it became something else when the Band played a blues tune because they are, but they’re incredibly funky and soulful in their own way, obviously.

What [keyboardist] Garth Hudson did in the Band he adds this whole other element. He’s a schooled musician and brought this other thing in there. He brought in a lot of diverse things together as a musician. For me it feels good to fit into that place.

In listening to the music, I get deeper in checking out The Last Waltz. Obviously, everyone knows it’s one of the great music films of all time. So, I’m really going in and checking out what Garth is doing, which is really a blast for me.

In general I’m not a cover musician. (laughs) I’ve done a lot of that stuff as a professional musician earlier in my life. I played weddings, bar mitzvahs and country clubs. I played for people to dance. When I moved to New York and Medeski Martin & Wood took off, it was all about original music, finding what it is I have to say and saying it as opposed to regurgitating what someone else says.

Listening to Garth, I really related to his approach. He’s unquestionably one of the greatest rock keyboard players, if not the greatest of all time. When you go back and listen to what he does, it really fits in but at the same time it has this other element of freedom even while it’s refined and perfect for the song. There’s something wild about it. I relate to that a lot. So, it’s really fun. In this particular group of people coming together it’s really about that. We’re playing this music and we’re playing the arrangements but to a certain extent the way that the Band did them but everybody in the band is a strong musical personality individually. No one is imitating the original players other than we’re playing what they did but everyone expresses themselves at the same time. It’s a pretty amazing group. It’s really fun.

At this point in my life I don’t have the time to sit around and learn the stuff I want to learn. I’m either playing gigs with different people or…My musical growth at this point, and for years now, comes from whatever it is that I’m doing at that time. I played some of these songs before but this has been a great opportunity to really get into this music and learn these songs and check out Garth and what he’s doing. When I get into I have even more respect for what he did as a keyboard player. It’s kind of intangible.
He’s one of those guys. Certain musicians what they do is intangible. It’s so creative and innovative and also fully honoring these songs at the same time. That’s a really hard thing to do but it’s something I’ve always strived to do whenever I play with anybody is to do what the music calls for relative to what I’m capable of. It’s not about showing off. What does the music need? What can I add to this? What can I do to be part of this and take it to another place? I see that’s what he did.

JPG: As far as going deeper into the music, I can tell that you’re a fan but not an obsessive, which I don’t think is a requirement for the position…

JM: Honestly, I want to say this because I want to say it. There are a lot of people out there and I’ve played with certain people, and you really see it in the Grateful Dead scene that there are a lot of people who are obsessives. For me that’s not what music is about. It’s not classical music. Even in the classical music world, the great classical players have something to offer to see the music through different eyes and shed another light on it while maintaining the integrity of it.

I don’t care about all that stuff. The real core of this is what were they doing? Where were they coming from? It’s not about the notes and the exact chords and how the voice is. All that is a part of it, and it’s good to be aware of that stuff and learn that and know what it is. But, always for me with music, where is the heart of it and where does it come from? That’s what I go for and that’s what I listen for and that’s what I get into. Part of the journey to that is learning what they did to a certain extent. But, while doing that a lot of people—obsessives is a good word—they stop at the notes and the rhythms that they play. That’s all they see and that’s all they know and so you end up… For me I end up hearing this music and it’s… (sighs) why do it? I’d rather hear the original guys do it.

It’s nostalgic for people that hear that music in any form but I have issues with people that are so scholastically anal retentive about music. That’s like putting music in a coffin. The thing about this group is that it’s the opposite of that. It’s like reveling in this great music and giving it new life.

JPG: Last April, you did the two well-received Last Waltz shows in New Orleans. I was looking over the setlist and I was surprised that, speaking of Garth Hudson and having your talents on board, “Chest Fever” with “The Genetic Method” intro wasn’t played. Could that be something added on this tour?

JM: I’ll bring that up! That would be cool! (laughs)

JPG: Give you a moment to go wild. Second set, you come out alone and do “The Genetic Method” then right after the rest of the musicians come onstage you go into “Chest Fever.”

JM: We’ll see how it all develops. Because we’re going to be doing it so much we probably will add new material in as we go.

It’s a pretty strong show as is. I honestly don’t need…I think it’s because, ultimately, I’m a piano player. I’m not as old school as somebody who is in their 80s. I’m not of that generation but I’m old school enough to be 100% content and fulfilled by the accompaniment of the role. I love it. I love playing behind people. I love being a supportive musician as much as I like being upfront or solo. But, I don’t ever need to do that. It’s as much work and I get as much pleasure doing the right thing or, maybe, shifting it just enough to goose it a little or give it a kick in the ass with whoever I’m playing with. I’m really happy to do that.

That’s one of the things I always loved about John Scofield playing with Medeski Martin & Wood. The trio has a chemistry that’s its own and there’s stuff we can do when it’s just the three of us that we can’t do when anybody else is there but you throw somebody like Scofield or Nels Cline in the mix and suddenly it’s a different role. And I love comping behind be Sco or Warren or a horn player as much as I like being the featured voice. I really do. It’s just as fulfilling for me. That’s what I feel about Garth’s stuff. He’s able to do that. He’s able to support the song and at the same time be this crazy freaky unique really deep musician. That’s my goal in life.

JPG: When you did the New Orleans show Ivan Neville joined you.

JM: Yes, Ivan came up and sang and played a little.

JPG: With him being part of the tour I imagine the two of you already have things figured out. Is it even correct to say that you’re doing the Garth parts and he’s doing the Richard Manuel parts or…?

JM: Michael McDonald is doing the piano parts. With Ivan there he’ll be singing and playing and we’ll just trade around, I’m sure. Ivan is so easy. He’s such a great musician and easy to play with. I’m sure we’ll figure that out. It’ll depend on what songs. It’ll be a song-to-song thing.

JPG: Another person who is on the tour and played the previous Last Waltz shows is Bob Margolin. Did he offer any inside scoop on that Thanksgiving night playing with Muddy Waters and the Band or anything from that show that was helpful?

JM: Everything about him is helpful and insightful. He’s incredible. He has a real connection to that music. He just comes in, fires it up and brings that real spirit in.

He’s like a real musician in that way. He’s bringing in the spirit. That’s what we’re supposed to do as musicians. We’re not scholars and sit there and talk about this or that. Stories can be shared. But, for him that was one night in a lot of nights back then. They sat in on one tune. They were special guests. You’ve got to put yourself into their shoes and think about what it was for them back then and…he’s truly amazing and it’s such a treat to play with him.

Again, he’s trying to goose the fire out of everybody. It’s not about, “Don’t play that note. Don’t play this note.” It’s about put that spirit in there or else. (laughs) That’s where he’s coming from and I love that.

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