“Music is about creating a vibration, an energy,” John Medeski says. “It’s healing and transformative.”
As the keyboardist in the trailblazing instrumental trio Medeski Martin & Wood, solo performer, leader of his own project the Itch, film composer, and producer, collaborator and sideman with countless other artists, Medeski has channeled this transformative force with uncanny power and imagination.
A skilled composer and whirling-dervish improviser, he consistently wrings sonic revelations from acoustic and electric piano, Hammond organ, Clavinet, Mellotron, assorted synthesizers and other instruments. He’s nearly as dynamic visually as aurally, windmilling his hands across the keys, leaning into a B-3 stab, reaching inside the piano to tap the strings with a screwdriver.
Whether the music he’s playing at any given moment can be classified as jazz, funk, modern classical, avant-noise, roots music, rock or “world,” however, is of little concern. “I never separated music into categories,” he insists. “Whoever I’m playing with, I just think, ‘What can I add that will be part of this? Does it need anything?’”
He was born in Kentucky but raised in Florida, starting piano lessons at the tender age of five. Though his fervor for music wasn’t instantaneous, he had his first “out-of-body experience” playing a Mozart sonata while still an adolescent. “It was a competition, and I guess I arrived late, because I had no time to get ready and just sat down and played,” he recalls. “It was like I wasn’t even playing – I was just transported. After that, I did whatever I could to get that feeling back.”
Though obsessed with the structural complexity of the great classical composers, young John seized every opportunity to play: dances, talent shows, marching band (on percussion), concert band (bassoon). He learned standards from family songbooks, meanwhile, but was bowled over when he first heard jazz piano legend Oscar Peterson’s take on the same material. “Holy shit, man,” Medeski exclaims. “It was so deep and soulful and grooving, and technically he’s ridiculous. That blew my mind; it was like, ‘How do I do that?’”
His parents indulged his burgeoning obsession with jazz, setting up lessons with a teacher who’d studied with Peterson. Immersion in the sublime sounds of Ellington, Basie, Bud Powell, Cecil Taylor and other luminaries of the form followed in short order.
In his mid-teens he was part of a trio called Emergency, playing electric piano (only because most of the Florida venues they booked didn’t have pianos of their own). He was only 16 when he played with legendary bassist Jaco Pastorius, who invited him to tour Japan – but the fledgling musician’s mother wouldn’t allow him to go.
Medeski sold his piano before leaving home to attend the New England Conservatory (NEC) in Boston. He continued to play piano there, but the discovery of a dust-covered Hammond B-3 organ in a rehearsal hall would significantly alter his course. “I’d checked out the B-3 before and listened to Jimmy Smith and Larry Young,” he notes, “but this time, when we started jamming with it, I was blown away. It was a universe of sound. I was playing a lot of free jazz at the time and really got into the coloristic possibilities of the instrument.”
At the NEC, Medeski studied in the open-ended Third Stream program, which was designed to help artists forge their own style. It was there that he began to face a fundamental fact: “I’m not strictly a jazz musician,” he says. “I love Ray Charles and Marvin Gaye and A Tribe Called Quest as much as I love Coltrane. How do I put all that together? The Third Stream concept was to absorb what you love through the ear, and let it come out.”
He also came to understand – when he began his tenure with the acclaimed Boston-area outfit Mr. Jelly Belly’s Jazz and Blues Band – that his pursuit of complexity had limited his chops. “I realized when I got in that band that I couldn’t even play a 1-4-5 blues,” he says with some mortification. “I could handle the most complicated chord changes; I could sight-read contemporary classical music; but I was so busy understanding Schoenberg that I wasn’t able to express a lot of simpler music that was also part of my fabric.”
His tutelage with teacher and jazz luminary Bob Moses helped Medeski focus on groove and blues feel. Meanwhile, as he played out – frequently seven nights a week – with Mr. Jelly Belly’s troupe, he began to experience the liberating power of these elemental forms. “It put me in touch with the part of me I hadn’t developed,” the keyboardist reflects. “I never backed off the intensity of self-expression. It gave me a chance to try to be Hendrix.”
But regular paid gigs in Boston meant a lot of weddings, a lot of country-club engagements, and a lot of playing “New York, New York” four times a night. Medeski grew weary of making background music for socializing.
Thanks to the intercession of his mentor, Moses, Medeski – at this point living a rigorously balanced life of yoga and macrobiotic eating in the Berkshires – landed gigs with the likes of Dewey Redman and the Either/Orchestra; on one of the latter dates he met a fiercely gifted and intuitive young bassist named Chris Wood. “He was a monster,” the keyboardist recalls, adding that his admiration extended beyond Wood’s playing to encompass the openness of his attitude. Wood, meanwhile, was stunned by Medeski’s playing and found his adventurous musical spirit “inspiring.” Not long thereafter, they were sharing a New York City apartment, jamming regularly and poring over Medeski’s copious record collection.
They’d set up shop in the city to work as jazz sidemen, but disliked the musical environment they encountered. “I’d be comping on keys and these sax players would just blow the solos they’d practiced in their rooms without even listening to what I was playing,” recalls Medeski. “There was very little interaction.” He’d thrown away his tuxes upon hitting the Big Apple – a ceremonial exorcism of the country-club gig cycle – but he still wasn’t making the kind of music he heard in his head.
The downtown arts scene, however, presented a bracing alternative: fearlessly creative, intellectually restless and unconcerned with categories. “It had a punk-rock attitude, but it also had the ‘higher calling’ of the best jazz,” reflects Medeski, who has shared stages with downtown figures like John Zorn, John Lurie, Mark Ribot and Steve Bernstein. “Whether you were reaching up to God or flipping off the Man, it was about something more than just entertainment.” This innovative demimonde brought the Third Stream philosophy to fruition; it also illuminated a different sort of path (and lent community support) as Medeski and Wood developed the musical kernel that would become their band. They played a series of engagements together at New York’s Village Gate, enlisting an array of drummers. All these skinsmen, though hugely talented, couldn’t push the fledgling trio project to a new level.
It took Billy Martin, another Moses referral, to complete the picture. With an impeccable groove feel and grounding in Brazilian and African beats and percussion, Martin enabled Medeski and Wood to play in what the keyboardist calls a “jazz spirit” without being confined by jazzman convention. Furthermore, with danceable, accessible grooves undergirding the trio’s music, Medeski ventures, “I could infect people’s minds much more easily.”
From their very first jam, in Martin’s Brooklyn apartment, the chemistry was magical. In fact, Medeski’s transcription of a recording of that jam turned (with virtually no variation) into “Uncle Chubb,” a track on their debut recording and a live perennial.
The threesome began gigging regionally and down south in 1991 – initially under the moniker Coltrane’s Wig, a name supplied by sardonic downtown kingpin John Lurie, before they settled on Medeski Martin & Wood – and attracted a following. Though Medeski started out playing piano in the group, he began switching to an organ and electric setup for touring purposes. From their 1992 debut release Notes From the Underground (initially circulated on cassette) onward, the threesome forged their own unmistakable hybrid of jazz, funk, blues, avant-garde squonk and cinematic sweep.
In addition to a spate of adventurous releases embracing acoustic and electric instrumentation, live and studio creation and lively blends of each, they have constantly expanded their palette—by collaborating with jazz guitar firebrand John Scofield, backing up artists like R&B sax giant Maceo Parker and glam-punk icon Iggy Pop, building the ingenious, multi-disc compilation Radiolarians: The Evolutionary Set, making a movie (the 2009 band doc Fly in a Bottle, directed by Martin for Radiolarians) and even running a yearly camp for aspiring musicians. As the band approached its 20th anniversary in 2011, Medeski Martin & Wood prepared an elaborate menu of retrospective and forward-looking projects.
But John Medeski’s restless muse could never be confined to a single enterprise, even one as multifaceted and endlessly experimental as MMW. He co-created The Word, an instrumental gospel project, with Luther Dickinson of the North Mississippi Allstars, bringing in the latter’s bandmates and steel guitar prodigy Robert Randolph. He’s also thrown down with, among others, award-winning roots maven T Bone Burnett, Peruvian singer Susana Baca, New Orleans soul legend Irma Thomas, former Phish guitarist-frontman Trey Anastasio, Grateful Dead alumnus Phil Lesh, eminent gospel vocal group The Blind Boys of Alabama, trailblazing hip-hop DJ Dan the Automator, Charlie Hunter’s out-jazz expedition Altitude and rock collective Grizzly Adams; performed extensively and in various styles, from Chicago to Guadalajara, as a solo performer; and fronted the funked-up trio John Medeski & the Itch.
He’s also been active as a producer, helming projects by Chris Wood’s roots-oriented project the Wood Brothers, “sacred steel” family group the Campbell Brothers and the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, among others, and as a film composer. His work for the screen includes score music for the features Audrey the Trainwreck (for which the New Yorker praised his “wistful piano), William Vincent, in which he also appears (“The vaguely mischievous, minimalist score by John Medeski,” opined Variety, “is richly atmospheric”), and Day on Fire . His other cinematic work includes a contribution (with erstwhile supergroup the Million Dollar Bashers, featuring members of Television, Wilco and others) to the soundtrack of the celebrated Bob Dylan biopic I’m Not There.
No matter what sounds he’s making, John Medeski is always in relentless pursuit of that unique vibration. “It’s easy to get so into studying and analyzing and practicing, and lose touch with that fundamental feeling that made you want to play music in the first place,” he says. “When you connect with that, you can play with true freedom and openness, because everything will come from the deep place inside you where music comes from.”
“What’s music for?” The versatile musician asks rhetorically. “Making money? Entertainment? No. It’s a language, one that exists between the land of emotion and the land of intellect. Music can change your whole world.”