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Published: 2013/04/27
by Brian Robbins

John Medeski
A Different Time

John Medeski A Different Time (Okeh)

Billy Martin’s Wicked Knee Heels Over Head (Amulet Records)

A Different Time may be keyboard djinn John Medeski’s first solo album (and it really is, believe it or not), but his instrument of choice for this outing deserves nearly-equal billing itself.

Medeski had the sound and vibe of Arthur Rubinstein’s RA recordings in mind when he went into Waterfront Studios to work on A Different Time. Producer/engineer Henry Hirsch had two pianos on hand to offer Medeski: the studio’s nine-foot Steinway, which produced some beautiful music in the early days of the sessions; and a 1924 French Gaveau – which, as Medeski explains, “required a very delicate, controlled touch. When you play delicately you can get a lot of nuance and really make this instrument sing.”

And sing it did. Once the Gaveau was introduced to the equation, it became the go-to instrument for A Different Time – a unique and intimate offering of acoustic John Medeski.

Hirsch’s recording brilliantly captures the Gaveau’s sound: the historic piano’s voice has the subtlety and emotion of a wind instrument under Medeski’s fingers; the individual notes of a chord are there to be burrowed into; single notes sustain without ever getting cluttered; and you can all but hear the air in the room. Nice.

The roster of nine songs on A Different Time are from a mix of sources. Of the covers, the traditional spiritual “His Eye Is On The Sparrow” is a natural in this setting; Willie Nelson’s “I’m Falling In Love Again” is as well – a surprise choice, but simply lovely. This is a gentle John Medeski at work: the upper end of the Gaveau’s keyboard requires only the lightest of touches, as he demonstrates on the Nelson song. “Waiting At The Gate” is another cover, of sorts – the veteran musician John Medeski interpreting a sweet little tune written by the teenaged John Medeski years ago.

The Gaveau’s lower register is explored during the improvisations of “Graveyard Fields”; “Lacrima” is unsettled – and left with questions unanswered; and “Luz Marina” is a mix of beauty and heartbreak.

One of the most intriguing improvisational pieces on A Different Time is the title track, which invites the listener in as Medeski gently challenges himself, the piano, and the song’s melody. And longtime Medeski, Martin & Wood fans may recognize “Otis” – offered here in a much different setting from how it appeared on the band’s debut album in 1992.

This is not the John Medeski you know, but if you have an appreciation for hearing a master alone at work, it is a John Medeski you will love. A Different Time, indeed.

Bandmate Billy Martin is far from alone on his latest solo project – and there isn’t a whole lot about it that’s delicate or subtle, either. What it is, though, is fun.

Officially, Heels Over Head is credited to “Billy Martin’s Wicked Knee” – a quartet of veteran jazzbos who sound like they’re having one hell of a time. Reportedly, the seed for the Wicked Knee ensemble was planted 20 years ago when Martin and just-as-wild-as-he-is trumpeter Steve Bernstein discussed getting a small, brass-powered group together. It took a couple of decades for the veteran players to find the opportunity, but the result was worth the wait. Tuba master Marcus Rojas and trombonist Curtis Fowlkes are the other half of Wicked Knee – Heels Over Head is a wide-open tumble of toots, honks, roars, bellows, crazy-assed let-fly blowings, and grooves grooves grooves grooves.

There’s a lot of N’awlins to be found in the music of Wicked Knee (including the joyous “Sugarfoot Stomp” and the too-funky-for-its-own-good “Muffaletta”), but the boys cover plenty of other ground, as well. “Canta Y No Llores” sashays sassily south of the border; “Ghumba Zumba” could be a big brass-assed cousin to Steve Kimock’s “A New Africa”; and the atmospheric improvs of “Chaman’s Interlude” and “Noctiluca” come from … from … well, who knows where they come from – except it’s a place that horns and percussion don’t usually go. But that’s the deal with Wicked Knee: they’re just as fearless as they are funky.

The White Stripes are tagged on Heels Over Head : “Button To Button” is both fierce and playful – a soundtrack to Dumbo on acid. And the boys even invite a gal into their funhouse: vocalist Shelley Hirsch adds her talents to “99%”, letting fly with her own on-the-spot scats and stories. She winds and weaves her voice around, between, over, and under the horns; she goads reactions from them and teases the beat; and manages to meld gonzo and sultry in a weird and wonderful way.

This I can promise you: you’ve never heard anything like Billy Martin’s Wicked Knee before.

And this I can promise you as well: you’re going to grin; you’re going to tap your foot; and chances are pretty good you’re going to shake your backside, too.

*****

Brian Robbins toots, honks, and whatever over at www.brian-robbins.com

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