John Medeski: Strong as Ever with MMW
The topsy-turvy nature of the recording business now has many musicians wondering which way to turn. Some labels are still working. Others are going with independent backing. It's an industry in flux. "It's harder, there's no question," Medeski says. "The thing that's killing the music industry effects everybody, musicians of all kinds. We had a great run with Blue Note, but we were ready to be done when we were done. We were dying to be on our own so we could put stuff out how we wanted, when we wanted, the way we wanted, without any pressure or expectations. Blue Note is a fantastic record label ... For us, at the time, they were very hands-off ... That's the way it should be. They didn't ever put any pressure on us artistically. They let us do what we do. And did what they could with it. But I think we're better off now. We're happier as a band."
As for Medeski himself, he was born in Kentucky and grew up in Florida before his journey northward. "I guess I've played my whole life," he says of his early attraction to the piano. His father taught him to play blues and jazz standards on the piano at a very young age and he remained fascinated with the instrument. He enrolled in the Pinecrest School, a private institution where he studied classical music and theory. "I was into playing classical piano and then I would play songs that my parents liked as well. I'd just read the sheet music to some of these old tunes. Then I heard Oscar Peterson [on record] over at a friend's house playing some of those same songs. I was like: Holy shit. Really? You can play it like that? It doesn't have to be Lawrence Welk? You've got to be kidding me."
Medeski became more interested and started taking jazz lessons, first from Lee Shaw. Then his horizons began to expand beyond acoustic piano. "When I was up in Boston, I was in a blues band. Jazz and blues band, I guess. I started playing organ. A guy turned me on to all this organ music. I was only 19 years old. I never imagined I'd play it. When I was a kid I guess I played Fender Rhodes piano, but in all honesty I never took it seriously. It was what you did because they didn't have a piano," he says. "Obviously things have changed. I've fallen in love with all these old keyboards. It's great. I love it."
He was influenced by the lineage of great pianists, but cites Herbie Hancock, Joe Zawinul, Bill Evans, Bud Powell, Thelonious Monk, Sun Ra, Billy Preston and Stevie Wonder as highlights among them, as well as drawing inspiration from musicians like Jimi Hendrix and Wayne Shorter.
Of course, MMW has never been his sole outlet or claim to fame. He continues to explores classical music at times and can be heard in various jazz contexts as well. He has scored films. He's produced projects for groups including The Dirty Dozen Brass Band, gospel instrumentalists The Campbell Brothers and The Wood Brothers, which is his band mate Chris Wood with brother Oliver Wood on guitar. He's performed with New York-based musicians John Zorn, Marc Ribot, John Lurie and Steve Bernstein, among others, and has recorded with the likes of Rufus Wainwright, k.d. lang, Iggy Pop, Maceo Parker, The Blind Boys of Alabama, and Mavis Staples.
He also recorded with sax man James Carter on Heaven on Earth (Half Note), recorded live at New York City's Blue Note nightclub during an engagement and released this year, with a monster group consisting of Christian McBride, Adam Rogers, and Joey Baron.
"That was really a blast," he said. "It's a pretty exciting band. Every night was great. Hopefully we'll get out there and [promote] that some time. That would be great ... I've always been doing a lot of different stuff. I've got some stuff going on right now. Some stuff with Zorn ... I was involved with a Tony Williams Lifetime tribute at the beginning of this year with Vernon Reid, Cindy Blackman and Jack Bruce. We did a run at the Blue Note In Japan. That was really fun."
He adds, "I've been working on a lot of solo piano. I'm working with this guitar player right now and working on a few records with guitarist Tisziji Munoz. That band is Bob Moses, both Don Pate and John Lockwood on basses. We have a few records coming out. We're trying to finish them up right now."
His MMW mates are also busy with their own projects, but MMW is going as strong as ever and it appears that fans can continue to expect new and stimulating music for the foreseeable future.