A talk with keyboardist John Medeski of celebrated jazz trio Medeski, Martin & Wood
One of the charms of Medeski, Martin & Wood albums is the way songs frequently have a single-take, offhanded feel.
Keyboardist John Medeski says that sort of spontaneity is no accident.
“We try to find ways to keep that sort of spirit or process or whatever, trying to find a way to make a studio kind of record while keeping that process alive, not killing it with overthinking or overworking [the music],” Medeski said.
For a Medeski Martin & Wood CD, this means bringing the kind of improvisational approach one might expect from their live shows to the writing and recording process.
To create much of the music on the group’s new CD, Uninvisible, the trio of Medeski, bassist Chris Wood and drummer Billy Martin set up shop at Schaklyn, their New York City studio, and simply began jamming.
“It’s been our approach to writing music always, to kind of have it come out of something that we create together, and then we’re able to work on it, develop it.” Medeski said. “We call them seeds. We’ll work on something, and we’ll find maybe get something out of a particular rehearsal or improvisational thing. We’ll have something that feels extra special, so we’ll go back and replay it and work it out and create a piece of music that way, by playing them over and finding other sections and melodies.”
Eventually the raw tracks are edited down to a more focused finished song. And while the typical Medeski Martin & Wood song on Uninvisible clocks in at around only four minutes, the freeform spirit of the performance remains.
Medeski said the approach to the music on Uninvisible was so open ended that the players had virtually no idea what they would play until it happened. There was only one loosely stated goal going into the CD.
“We were going to do a record that was a little more groove oriented and more consistently grooving than the last one maybe. That might have been our only goal really,” Medeski said. “How that manifested itself we didn’t know.”
The groove element is certainly more pronounced on Uninvisible than it was on the trio’s previous studio CD, The Dropper.
On The Dropper, the band’s long-standing funk influence was present, but the music frequently veered more into spacier, almost psychedelic territory, taking a more unhinged brand of rhythm with it in the process.
By contrast, a thick, funky pulse is central to many of the tracks on Uninvisible. There are still moments of cosmic musical exploration (for instance on the song “Take Me Nowhere"), but for the most part Medeski’s organ, synthesizer and piano parts remain anchored more closely to the deep grooves created by Martin and Wood.
For instance, the title song gets a decidedly ‘70s funk feel from its descending base melody, while Medeski’s keyboards mix freely with blasts of horns.
The hip-hop feel that has increasingly found its way into the Medeski Martin & Wood sound since the 1998 CD Combustication is also a prominent ingredient, especially informing such Uninvisible songs as “Pappy Check” and “The Edge of Night.”
Even though the songs are concise and entertaining, the music has enough complexities to satisfy more cerebral fans. Maintaining a mixture of innovation and entertainment is a major goal for the group, Medeski said.
“There’s entertainment and then there’s art. I think both things are important and both things are good,” Medeski said. “Sometimes you just need to be lightly entertained, and sometimes it’s fun to be taken on a journey.”
Medeski Martin& Wood have been creating music that moves the mind and the feet since 1991, when the group formed in New York City. Uninvisible is the trio’s ninth CD, and each band member has also involved himself in a number of outside projects along the way.
Recently, Martin has started his own record label, Amulet Records, to release percussion breakbeat albums by himself and other artists. He’s also organized a Turntable Sessions concert series in New York to bring together DJs with some of the city’s best jazz and experimental musicians.
Wood, meanwhile has kept busy recording and touring with a variety of artists, including saxophonist Karl Denson and drummers Stanton Moore and Bob Moses.
Perhaps the busiest of the three, though, is Medeski, who over the preceding year has recorded with such artists as Sex Mob, John Scofield and Gov’t Mule and has also formed a side band, The Word, that released an acclaimed debut CD last year. That group includes Medeski, steel guitar player Robert Randolph and the three members of the North Mississippi Allstars—Luther Dickinson, his brother Cody Dickinson and Chris Chew.
The group specializes in instrumental gospel, a style of music that Medeski says has a long history, but little of which has been recorded.
“I would say it’s been thoroughly explored, probably since the early 1900s, the ‘30s or something like that," Medeski said of instrumental gospel. "But no one has heard but the people who go to the churches until recently. It’s kind of like this innocent, pure form in the 20th century, which is hard to find."