Keyed Up

John Medeski

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John Medeski by John Margaretten

With super duper high-end musicians there’s often a stink of technique and training that’s impossible to conceal. It’s nothing many great players can control, and it’s totally understandable given the hours of practice, study, etc. that’s required to reach the top levels of one’s instrument and craft. However, there are beautiful exceptions, where all the muscular skill and the hard work it takes to build it are invisible and what comes through is music so pure, clear and free it makes the listener inhale excitedly, a breath of life issued in sound that’s not tied to school, charts, and intellect. John Medeski is the epitome of such exceptions, an original seemingly un-entangled by tradition – though clearly aware of and adept at it in multiple genres – from the moment he burst into the general musical consciousness with Medeski Martin & Wood in the early 1990s.

Only 47, Medeski has always seemed an old soul who could comfortably pull up a seat next to the likes Oscar Peterson, Brian Eno and Ahmad Jamal and hold his own. Combine that with a willingness to dive into any deep end offered – the gospel-blues of The Word, the prickly fusion adventures of Dave Fiuczynski, the tough-minded spirituality of John Zorn’s Masada, singer-songwriter rock with Bob Dylan, Ray LaMontagne & Rufus Wainwright, and much more besides – and what emerges is one of the most curious and capable keyboardists of all-time. It’s not an outrageous claim by any stretch given how Medeski has excelled at every challenge thrown at him, eagerly pursuing opportunities to try new things and generally knocking it out of the park in whatever game he’s engaged in. Rather than a fixed style, Medeski has shown nigh-endless flavor, his instincts on the money whether he’s carving out Satie-like piano figures written by Greg Rogove, raising the ghost of Tony Williams’ Lifetime with Spectrum Road, or sharpening his teeth with Coheed and Cambria – three winning projects from just this past year.

New MMW Album

His latest effort with MMW, Free Magic (released September 25 on Indirecto Records), is a killer snapshot of the keyboardist in full, unencumbered flight captured during the trio’s first-ever acoustic tour in 2007. Through this set’s five lengthy, improv dappled tracks one discovers a man as delighted in tickling a toy piano as he is in making a baby grand caper with Astaire fingers. Free Magic puts MMW’s raw curiosity in the spotlight while accentuating the long-held belief that what they share musically is akin to telepathy. Without a word they travel near and far, welcoming melodies and chance elements into the same room to see how they sit and move together. A great deal of intense listening is part of the process, and these archival recordings allow one to eavesdrop from within the burbling, clanking, excitedly open center of things. It’s a rare album in the modern era that really rewards one for turning the lights down low and giving it one’s full attention.

Here’s what Medeski had to say in the Impound’s keyboardist survey.

Favorite keyboard? Why?
I don’t really have a favorite. I am a keyboard-polygamist. If there could be only one, it would be piano. Needs no electricity, has the ultimate touch sensitivity, and has the most range of any keyboard for me. BUT, since I can have more than one, Hammond B3 (or C3 or A100) would be next, then Mellotron.
Tastiest keyboardist – i.e. not just soloing but also overall playing – currently working?
Another impossible question. Depends on what we’re in the mood for, non? You get sick and die if you eat only one thing, they say. But just to be a nice guy, I’ll say Ray Charles.
A keyboard solo I never get tired of listening to is…
Sun-Ra’s Moog solo – Nuits de la Fondation Maeght Vol. 1
Preferred brand of keys? Why?
Sadly, there isn’t anything being made currently that I love or feel a deep connection with. Steinway still makes good pianos, of course. Oh! I take that back. The new M4000 Mellotron from Streetly Electronics. They’ve taken the old model and reproduced it perfectly, with great detail, and made improvements that actually ARE improvements. A much more solid machine with four times as many sounds as the original. I’ve also been enjoying the MEM PALette analog synth. It doesn’t have a keyboard so maybe it doesn’t fall under “keys” – really great though.
Thelonius Monk, Bernie Worrell or Nicky Hopkins– which one gives you the biggest keyboard boner? What makes them SO sweet?
I’m SO not able to answer that. Boner is a boner and again, a mono-diet is deadly, after all! What makes ALL of these guys so “sweet” is how when they play, every note counts. Their contribution to any given song or piece becomes classic and an integral part of the composition.
One lesser known keyboardist folks should check out is…
Jamie Saft is someone I would say isn’t as well known as he should be but is incredible – one of my favorites. He plays everything, has his own style, rocks.
What aspect of being a keyboardist always makes you happy?
One of things I enjoy most is bringing keyboards into situations or styles of music that don’t normally have or even detest keyboards. It’s not about what you play, it’s about what you contribute. I also love that keyboards are great for playing solo, unaccompanied. You’ve got it all.