Medeski Martin & Wood: 25 Happy Years on the Fringe
The jazz/groove outfit Medeski Martin & Wood formed 25 years and quickly became one of downtown New York’s avant garde jazz scene’s best-known musical exports. To celebrate their anniversary, the guys are playing two shows in Cleveland at On Air Studio on Friday, November 18 and Saturday, November 19. They’ll be joined each night by some very special guests and lifelong collaborators such as guitarist Marc Ribot, trumpeter Steven Bernstein and percussionist Cyro Baptista. Also on the bill are turntablists DJ Logic and DJ Olive. The trio—keyboardist John Medeski, bassist Chris Wood and drummer Billy Martin—will dig deep into its catalog for the gigs. We spoke to Medeski as the was going to rehearse for a concert with avant garde jazz icon John Zorn and prepping for a gig that night with Nels Cline at the New York club (Le) Poisson Rouge.
When this band first came together, did you have some sense that it would still be kicking in 2016?
Not even. Definitely not, only because we from the beginning knew that we would stop doing it if it ever ceased to be creatively engaging or stopped growing or stopped being fun. We toured around the U.S. and played a lot of rock festivals and opened for a lot of bands. We saw what can happen if you are stuck playing the same stuff for 40 years and you all hate each other and are still getting on stage together. We didn’t want to do that. We didn’t even talk about it. It was never an option. I wouldn’t have expected that it would still be fun every time we play but in retrospect I’m not surprised considering the chemistry and the kind of music we play and who we are as people. We’re a trio and there’s no major ego in the band. Still, when we got together I never would’ve imagined.
What was the downtown New York scene like? Was it going strong or just starting out?
The scene had been going strong. I don’t know if I would call it jazz. It was a lot of improvisational music. It was creative music that had nothing particular to define it. There was an aesthetic that was happening but it didn’t require certain chords or anything. It was wide open. All of us were attracted to that. As much as I love jazz and study jazz, what I love about jazz is its spirit more than the notes and rhythms that define it. All of us are like that. The spirit of jazz is about being music in the moment and for the moment. When you just copy what someone did 30 years ago note for note and phrase for phrase you’re not really in the moment, are you? We just gravitated to the downtown scene because it was more creative and more fun and more alive. It was what the jazz scene was like in the 1950s. It’s that spirit.
I remember the Knitting Factory in Tribeca.
That was great when it started. So much great stuff happened at the original Knitting Factory. CBGBs Gallery and Tonic popped up after that. Now, it’s all moved around to Brooklyn. Zorn keeps it going with The Stone, which is its own thing. The purity of that place is inspiring.
What kind of reception did your first album, 1992’s Notes from the Underground, receive?
I don’t even know. I don’t pay attention too much to any of that. Some people liked it. We were excited about it, and it inspired us to go out on the road. What we did on the road got us our first record deal with Gramavision and that grew until we ended up on Blue Note. We had great runs with each record company we were with. It was challenging because no one knew how to market us and we had to do that ourselves. We are lucky to have a record deal at all given the climate now.
Did you start by playing rock clubs?
No. The first thing we did [was play] jazz clubs. There were some places that did get it and that inspired us. Young people would come out and they would get it. I had done some touring previously with a big band and knew there were people looking for new, jazz-inspired, wild music. We didn’t think about it too much. We were in the mode of making it happen. We gravitated to coffee shops and rock clubs after that. Honestly, it’s stuffy and pretentious and we wanted to play for our people. We didn’t want to play for critical guys with beards. We wanted to play for people who looking for something relevant, which jazz was at one point before it was coopted by the historical society.
You played a show with Phish in 1995. What was that experience like?
The Phish association really blew us up in a way in terms of audience size. We met them at CB’s gallery once. We didn’t know anything about them. We were doing our thing and from downtown New York. They were friendly and nice. We didn’t know who they were or that they had sold out Madison Square Garden three nights in a row. I didn’t know that. They were awesome people. We got wind that they were playing one of our CDs before their gig. Their audience was so hungry. The fact that they played our music was generous of them and really good for us. We ended upon a tour that was unintentionally routed to places where they were playing. We were in Wisconsin at this outdoor thing and it was a night off for Phish and there were thousands of people at our gig. We started to understand what was opening. We did open for Phish one time. They didn’t really have opening bands so that was a big deal. At that particular time, it was exciting. The jam band scene had not been named the jam band scene. It was new and exciting. It became a blessing and a curse as the scene became codified. We have been a band on the fringe of different scenes for people looking for something. We’re not a dance band. We groove and you can dance sometimes. We’re not an avant garde free band. We’re not a jazz band but we keep elements of jazz in the music.
On Shack-man, you delved into soul and funk. What inspired the decision to go in that direction?
That was one aspect of our music. Each record has a certain focus. We try to make our records be records. Every live show was available and would be traded. The idea of doing a record that was live seemed stupid because everything was out there. Shack-man evolved out of our winter retreats in Hawaii in January and February. We’d sublet our apartments. We did one Canadian tour in December and that was enough. We would spend January and February in the jungle with no electricity. We’d play music and swim. We worked on our rhythmic connection. We would groove for hours and play the same thing over and over. That was what that space provided. The shack itself had an incredible resonance with the thin plywood. When the next record came up, we took the budget and recorded there. The record company was terrified and didn’t trust us so they crimped our budget. We used our budget to buy solar panels and inverters and rent some equipment. We spent two weeks carving a record out. That’s the record that happened. In our weird way, we were trying to create musical nuggets and not stylistically like the Meters. Conceptually, it was our version of that sort of thing without a lot of soloing.
Band members always seem to be involved with side projects. Talk about why that’s important.
It’s why we’re still together. It’s like any relationship. When you grow as an individual, it helps the relationship. If you keep moving and growing, it helps everything. We’ve been growing and then cultivating our chemistry and language as a band. By doing other things, we have things to add to it. Getting better as musicians comes into play when we create music together. It’s key. I say it all the time that it’s why we’re still together.
You recently formed the group Saudade with Chino Moreno (Deftones, Team Sleep, Palms, and Crosses), guitarist Dr. Know (Bad Brains), bassist Chuck Doom (Crosses, Team Sleep) and drummer Mackie Jayson (Cro-Mags and Bad Brains). Talk about that project a bit.
That’s complicated. That is the brainchild of a friend of mine from South Florida where I grew up. The first band I was in when I was 15 was with this bassist named Charles Norkus, who was friends with Jaco [Pastorius] and Jaco’s brother in law. Chuck Doom is the mastermind behind this project. I can only hope it will turn into something. It’s a blast. The music is fun and it’s cool. It’s one of these weird dreams you’d never think you have. The music business is difficult but there’s lots of excitement behind it.
Can you talk ab it about the anniversary shows?
It’s a celebration so there will be older music brought into play. We have different people each night. We have guitar players and horn players. We’ll cover a lot of material we’ve done in the past as well as create some new music for the shows. There will also be spontaneous compositions that will only be available that night. We’re filming the shows and they’ll be part of a documentary about us. These will be our only MMW shows this year so we will be pumped.
PHOTO: © 2013 Medeski Martin & Wood