Piano for an answer
Over more than 20 years, the trio Medeski, Martin & Wood has earned unusual mainstream success for an instrumental combo by combining jazz improvisation with funk and hip-hop influenced grooves. The trio will perform an all-acoustic concert at Reno’s Knitting Factory, on April 21. John Medeski is the group’s pianist, keyboardist and organist.
Why an all-acoustic tour?
Our very first record when we first started, we were an acoustic piano-based trio. That’s kind of how we started. But we sort of naturally evolved, because they were no pianos anywhere when we started to tour, to bring in the Hammond organ and the electric piano, and one thing lead to another. We kept looking for more sounds and more colors and that’s how the band evolved. At some point, we did that record called Tonic, our first with Blue Note. For us, at that time, we did it mainly because we’d been playing a lot of huge venues. We’d opened up for Dave Matthews for five nights and playing all these festivals, and frankly we were kind of burned out on that way of making music. Nobody would be really listening. So we did this little all-acoustic run at [defunct New York city club] Tonic mainly for ourselves. We did no amplification. No mics on the piano, no mics on the drums, no mics on the bass—just acoustic in the room. Just for our own sanity. It was a return to a certain more intimate way of playing.
You’re a jazz group that’s somehow part of the jam band culture. How did that happen? It always seemed a little disconnected to me.
Actually, to be honest, I’m glad to hear that [laughs]. Really. To a lot of people, that’s what we are. And we never understood it. It never made sense to us, but it’s been a very welcoming scene. The truth is we were around before that scene was a scene. We were doing our thing, and that scene didn’t exist. We were there at the beginning of it, as it was developing, and for some reason the people related to our music. … We got together in ’91, 22 years ago. There was no jam band scene then. There was the Dead, and Phish was starting to get huge, but there really wasn’t this whole scene. We ended up opening up for Phish on a gig—one gig. And I think we had a tour where we had a very similar routing. We were playing Madison, Wisconsin, and there was 4,000 kids there. It was a night off from Phish, and the kids had heard one of our CDs at a Phish show, so they came to the gig. And that’s how it happened. It sort of evolved organically. I’d like to speculate that maybe there’s something we’re doing that’s different than what the other bands are doing. That scene is a very broad scene, musically. Admittedly, there’s certainly a lot of noodly guitar to be found [laughs], which you’ll not find in our band. We don’t even have a guitar player. It’s a blessing and a curse. What’s great is that there’s a lot of people listening to our music and the scene is very welcoming and open. I think the curse is that these are people who are not really listening and experiencing music on a higher level. … But I’ll tell you one of the things about the trio, and this also bridges into doing an acoustic gig. There’s a level of communication when it’s just the three of us. Three is a really incredible number for making music. Think about piano trios. As much as we use organ, we’re not an organ trio at heart. That music is a big part of my life. We have a bass player, which organ trios don’t have, and it’s more of an expanded piano trio. If you think about musical history—or jazz history—the piano trio is always more intimate and subtler than a quintet or a quartet. You think about Red Garland, Ahmad Jamal or Ramsey Lewis or Dollar Brand. There’s stuff left out, left to the imagination. There’s more space. And that’s kind of really important to what Medeski, Martin & Wood does. We, as a trio—there’s space for the imagination.