John Medeski is a virtuosic musician in every sense of the word. Outside of his renowned acid jazz-fusion trio Medeski, Martin & Wood, the pianist and organist has played with just about everyone on the scene (and beyond) and is a master of countless musical styles. This year, MMW has teamed up with another legendary player, John Scofield, to celebrate the 20th anniversary of their collaborative album, A Go Go. Medeski was on hand at Jam Cruise 16, where Medeski, Scofield, Martin & Wood awed attendees with their powerful performances and dynamic improvisations.
Live For Live Music got the opportunity to catch up with Medeski on the boat. We spoke about a whole slew of topics, ranging from his relationship with John Scofield over the years to his new project, Hudson, with Jack DeJohnette, Larry Grenadier, and Sco. He also shared news of not one, but two, upcoming Medeski, Martin & Wood albums and discussed technology and dream collaborations. You can read the interview below.
Ming Lee Newcomb: You’re here on Jam Cruise with Medeski, Scofield, Martin & Wood. You guys are rounding toward your 20th anniversary of A Go Go with John Scofield. Can you talk a little bit about how your relationship with Scofield has changed from that first collaboration to now?
John Medeski: It’s sort of like with anything: you never really know what’s going to happen. You meet somebody, and sometimes you hit it off, sometimes you don’t. That relationship develops, or it doesn’t. With Sco, when we first met and did that record, it was pre-Internet, pre-cell phones. At that time, Medeski, Martin & Wood spent our winters in Hawaii living in this shack. We’d be in the jungle, and maybe once a week, we’d go into town, get supplies, chill, play music, eat coconuts, swim, you know.
We had this 1-800 fan line at the time, and we’d get on the pay phone in town and check our messages. Chris Wood and I were listening to the messages on there, and there was one that was like, “Hey, this is John Scofield! Would love to play with you guys!” I was sure it was a joke and actually a friend of mine messing with us. So, Chris and I, we listen to the message again, and we’re like, we better call the number back just to see. Sure enough, it was actually John Scofield. So we got together and made A Go Go. It was Scofield’s music, it was his record, though we rehearsed and adjusted a few things for the way we play.
The truth is, there was just this chemistry with him musically but then also personally—he’s a nice guy, and I’m sure he gets along with just about everybody. That record, in retrospect, did certain things for him in terms of awakening the audience that we had built up to who he is and what he does—and obviously, he’s amazing, and he’s a master. He was doing that sort of thing anyway: taking jazz and mixing it with groove. We had cultivated a younger audience with the way we had been touring and with our style and approach, so really, it opened a lot of people up to him. For us, it gave us a certain credibility in the jazz world, like suddenly we were getting gigs in Europe that paid, which we weren’t getting before. We tried to go to Europe one time, and it was fine, but we did better in the States so we were like, “Why we go there and work for nothing when we can keep playing in our own country?”
In a way, it was very mutually beneficial, I think, and then musically, it was a blast. Unfortunately, at that time, Billy Martin had just had his first kid, and so when we did a tour for A Go Go, we had to get a different drummer. We used Clyde Stubblefield, who was the drummer from James Brown’s band, and he’s fantastic. It was an amazing experience, but we didn’t get an opportunity to do much playing as a band live when the record came out except for a few shows—I think we played the North Sea Jazz Festival? Basically, we did the record, Chris and I did the tour, and then we went our separate ways.
John Scofield & Medeski, Martin & Wood – “Chicken Dog” – North Sea Jazz Festival 1997
John Medeski: As time went on, we were like, “We should play with Sco again.” [laughs] Looking back, you realize there’s something special, something magical, a chemistry that you can’t put words to. We decided to make a record on our own label called Out Louder. We got together with Sco, and he came to our studio in Brooklyn and just hung out and played. Everybody brought in a little bit of music, but we also created a lot of music together. Then we did a tour on that, and it was fun, and the same thing happened. It was great, but then a few more years went by and we were like, “God, we miss John! We should play with John!” So we made this record Juice, and we did a tour.
It was just one of those things that every time we did it, it’d be really fun making the music and touring. Then also, the audience seemed to really like this band. It’s interesting, there are different schools. Some people’s favorite MMW record is A Go Go, which is actually a Scofield record. I think that people like to hear different sorts of things.
It’s been this very natural relationship that’s grown over twenty years. I’ve played with John in other situations, and I think Billy played with John on a Christmas record. We all ended up doing different stuff together in different ways, and I just got done with Hudson, this band that has been a real treat. It’s great to play with him in all these different settings. We did some duo gigs—we called ourselves The Johns. [laughs] It was just a little run in Europe, but that was really fun.
Hudson – Festival International de Jazz de Montréal 2017
John Medeski: Growing up, when I was going to school and playing with people in my late teens and early 20s, I can’t tell you how many people were trying to sound like John Scofield, you know what I mean? Then you play with him, and it’s like, “Wow, he really sounds like John Scofield.” [laughs] For me, I’ve always appreciated certain parts of his playing: that every note counts, the way he plays lines. He just has his own style. In jazz—and really, for me, in all music—great players have their own melodic sense. You can recognize them instantly just because of the way they put the notes together, and then a lot of people copy these guys. Sco is just one of those guys that a lot of people copy, and I’ve always loved his linear, melodic approach.
I saw him with Miles Davis in the late 80s or whenever that was. One of my favorite records back then was this album called Bar Talk, which was his trio. He had this way of playing jazz, but not being trapped in the past. With Medeski, Martin & Wood, we have this love of jazz, this love of funk, this love of a lot of different kinds of music. While we have a lot of different degrees of experience in these different styles, but we meet in a place that is special and unique. We love New Orleans music, and there’s this special kind of feel that John has when he plays with Billy. Plus, when we’re playing with John, as a trio, it gives us the opportunity to play the rhythm section, and we get to play together in a different way. When it’s the three of us alone, it’s this organism creating music as a whole. When we have John, we can be the backup band while he’s soloing and that gives us the opportunity to do a totally different thing.
MLN: And you like that though: taking the backseat during those performances?
JM: I love it. I mean, I’m a piano player originally, and one of the roles is to be an accompanist, and I’ve always loved doing that. It’s just, I don’t know, it’s a certain role that a sax player doesn’t get to do, and a lot of guitar players don’t do it because they’re just soloists. As a pianist, it’s just something that I’ve always done, whether it’s musicals, singers, classical music. It’s one of our rules, so I really appreciate it, and I love playing behind Sco.
MLN: Going back to the origin story of meeting Scofield, at the time, he was a little bit more established and you didn’t even necessarily believe his call was real. Did you find there was a mentorship aspect to your dynamic, or do you feel you came into the project on equal footing? Now, twenty years later, do you feel like that relationship is the same?
JM: It’s interesting. I think at the time we came in on equal footing. There was a lot of stuff to work out about how it was advertised. At that time, we were doing pretty well from a commercial standpoint, and like I said, it was pretty mutually beneficial. I think musically, John is really strong and he knows how good he is, but he’s also really humble. He doesn’t come into any situation like, “Let me show you something. Let me tell ya.” He comes in very humbly and just deals with what’s happening, and that’s how it was when we played together, but he’s also very strong. You notice that when you play with him, like, “Maybe we can push him in this direction or that direction,” but John does what he does, so we do what we do to give balance to it.
But yeah, I think that musically it was very much a collaboration even though that first record was all his music, and very strongly his music. He wrote it in a way and he allowed us to play and arrange those songs in a way that was really us too, or at least a certain side of us. When we play with different guitar players and different musicians, different sides of us come out. With Sco, there’s a certain side that comes out.
MLN: Keeping on with talking about collaborations, one of my favorite shows this year was Medeski, Martin & Wood’s show with Joe Russo’s Almost Dead at 1st Bank Center. Can you talk a little bit about that spacey drums and “Dark Star” collaboration that started the second set?
JM: Well, we’ve known Joe [Russo] since the Benevento/Russo Duo days when he and Marco [Benevento] first came out. It was his idea to have us all come out and do that. That’s one thing that we do as a band. We play free, expansive music, and there’s room for that in that scene and the Grateful Dead had their moments of doing that. It was very simple, just like, “Hey, let’s get up and do this. We’ll open the set and then go into this tune.” The song was predetermined, but what was going to happen before the tune was just really wide open. There was that crazy instrument that Joe had, so that was as spontaneous as it gets.
Joe is that kind of musician. He’s embraced the Dead scene, but that’s not where he was coming from when I first met him—maybe he was into the music, but he was a creative and searching musician. I think that’s what’s beautiful about what he brings to JRAD. He’s done the time playing with a lot of the guys in the Dead to really know that music and have a relationship with them that’s in the lineage, but his spirit is crazier and freer. To me, that performance was a testament to that side of him.
Joe Russo’s Almost Dead with Medeski, Billy Martin, Adam Morford, & Stuart Bogie – “Morfbeats” > “Dark Star” > “Mississippi Half-Step”
MLN: Can we talk about Hudson now? We mentioned it earlier, but you guys already released an album and toured, but it seems like it’s died down a little bit. Will that project be making a reemergence?
John Medeski: Definitely. We’ll be doing a tour next summer, I’m pretty sure. We have July set aside. The problem with that project is everybody is busy doing things. It’s another example of where you get these guys together—you see it especially in this jam band scene where you have these super jams—and just because something seems like a good idea or looks good on paper, it doesn’t mean it’s actually going to work. Just because you get great musicians together, it doesn’t mean that it’s going to be good. Really, the chemistry is everything when it comes to playing together, and especially when it comes to any music with improvisation or that’s spontaneous. The chemistry is really important.
It was Jack DeJohnette’s idea for his 75th birthday to put this band together. By the nature of it having Sco and me, it ended up turning into a little bit more of a collaborative thing because Sco doesn’t do sideman gigs anymore, you know? For me, I was just happy to play with Jack and was like, “Forget it! Whatever, anything!” [laughs] But it was nice because everybody had input. We got together and started rehearsing, and it was pretty instantaneously clear that it was a magical thing. It didn’t sound like anything that we’d ever heard before, even though it draws on certain things. It was really kind of instant, and when we went and made the record, it was the same thing—it was very easy and smooth and felt really good.
Then the live show that we took on the road for a month, it really got to another level. Sco and I were talking about this the other day; it was unbelievable where it got to. I mean, it was real fun, but normally by the end of the tour, you’re kind of like, “Alright. We’ve been playing these tunes a lot, it’s cool, but I’m ready to play something else.” Instead, it just got deeper. Jack is relentlessly creative and pushing—it’s just who he is—and it’s so beautiful and so inspiring. It’s unusual, but that’s where Jack is, and it’s what we all strive for. We can all do it, but you need everybody to be there. As soon as one person gets into a habit with the music, that’s kind of where it all ends up. It’s one of the reasons Medeski, Martin & Wood can be together for twenty-six years and still like each other and enjoy playing music together—because we all strive for that.
With Hudson, we actually did play about the same set every night, in terms of order and songs, but, man, it just kept pushing, pushing, pushing, and just going deeper. It was such a blast, and I think it was that good on every front for all of us. But everyone’s got other stuff going on, though I wish we could do it more, so you never know. We’ll see how this coming year goes. Jack, at this point in his life, doesn’t want to tour as much, and we’ve all got a lot of other stuff going on.
Hudson – “Castles Made Of Sand”, “Cripple Creek” – Bardavon Opera House – Poughkeepsie, NY – 10/4/2017
[Video: Matt Frazier]
MLN: Given the sort of frequently traditional gear you use, do you have any thoughts on how technology has shaped your playing or do you feel like you’ve tried to separate yourself from that?
John Medeski: I don’t know if I’m equipped to answer that because that’s a very historical question, but that’s a really good and big question. I mean, the acoustic piano is probably the most advanced non-electronic piece of equipment ever created in human history, if you think about it. Really, with the piano, I can tell who’s playing in just about three notes—everyone has their own sound on the piano. The great players you can tell—Bill Evans, [Vladmir] Horowitz, [Thelonius] Monk, Art Tatum, Bud Powell. The fact that this instrument has that power of individuality is very advanced. So, I guess technology is a part of it, but I don’t really think about that.
I look to something else in the music, for me. I’m kind of old school. I grew up, I played piano, and then I got a Hammond and played the organ. That was really electric for me, and now, I don’t use technology that much other than a tool for recording and stuff like that. I would say that maybe thirty years ago, I used to think that there was something about acoustic instruments that was “better.” I don’t think that anymore because people can do amazing things with anything. I mean, start with hip-hop and using a turntable as an instrument. Now, it’s computers and everything.
I’d love to be able to say, “Aw man, that’s not real music,” but I can’t, because it’s all about the creative spirit and what you can do with it. These are all just tools, and you can do really incredible things. I mean, there’s also a lot of generic crap, but that’s true for any instrument ever, always. With EDM, especially the stuff that’s more esoteric, weirder, tranced out, there’s some stuff that’s really amazing. You can do things with the computer and try things out, like superimposing stuff that from a compositional or harmonic aspect can be really advanced.
I don’t really do it that much because I’m kind of old-school and that’s my thing and I like to keep that going. More and more, I’ve started playing other acoustic instruments like flutes because I love sound without any amplification. For me, that’s the essence and root of everything—I’m looking for something that feels like that, but it can be done with a computer. I also feel like it’s important to keep in touch with a certain sonic purity. It’s about not losing touch with the heart connection, so anything that gets too up in the head, for me, doesn’t touch me in the same way. I sometimes fantasize about working with the computer more, but it’s funny because as time goes on, I feel like I’m getting more acoustic. [laughs] I like the limits of that and seeing how we can push those limits and using your imagination to do more, but that’s just me.
MLN: You have so many different projects circulating and you’ve worked with so many different artists throughout the years. Are there any people you haven’t worked with who you’d like to?
JM: I guess, I trust the universe because I’ve been lucky beyond. I mean, shit, [laughs] it’s kind of crazy. It’s already hard to believe that I get to play with these people that I’ve gotten to play with. But I mean, Wayne Shorter, but that’ll probably never happen. In terms of something that could happen: Jeff Beck. He’s playing better than ever, and it’s incredible. I don’t know how that would work, but that could be a cool thing.
Santana is another one. I got to play with him a little bit when I was working with Jack Bruce, who’s another person who I hoped to play with more but he left this planet. We did the lifetime tribute thing, and Carlos played a few gigs with us and sat in. I’ve always thought it would be cool to do something with him. I’d like to go back to the stuff that he was doing with McLoughlin—that sort of more spirit-oriented, jazzy instrumental side.
Santana, John Medeski, Jack Bruce, Cindy Blackman, & Vernon Reid – Yoshi’s Jazz Club – Oakland, CA – 2/3/2011
John Medeski: God, there are so many. Willie Nelson [laughs], I’d love to play with Willie. I guess that’s why I say that I trust. I feel like it’s about the chemistry. There might not be chemistry with these people. It might just be a disaster if I played with them. I’m pretty content with everything that’s happening. Already, I have a lot of stuff of my own that I want to do of my own that I want to get out there.
MLN: That kind of gets to my final question, which is about your own music. In summer of 2016, Billy sent out a tweet saying that a new album from MMW was coming out in the fall. There are now rumors of you being in the studio this summer. Do you have an update for us?
JM: We were in the studio, and we’re working on the record. It’ll be out probably this coming year, for sure. There’s gonna be a film and a documentary around it about the band. So it actually happened, and we’re working on it!
MLN: All new stuff?
JM: Yep. All new stuff, and it’s pretty exciting. We actually also have another record in the bag already with this orchestra called Alarm Will Sound. We played gigs in the Denver area with music they wrote, music that we wrote, and some old stuff rearranged for them.
MLN: So do you think you’ll release that or the new album first?
JM: I don’t know what we’ll do. That record is done so it can come out whenever. We’re just trying to find the right way to put it out. It’s hard to put out records these days, [laughs] unless you do it yourself. The new record, we still have some work to do. We recorded it, and now we have to see what else we need to record, see what we can use from what we have.
MLN: I won’t pry too much, but how would you say this new album differs from past works?
JM: I’m always kind of bad at this. I just kind of get in it and do it, so maybe it’s the same as all our other ones. I think this one is going to be a little more groove, soundscape-y. That just seemed to be the direction that it was going when we were recording, as opposed to less jammy-bandy-tuney. So yeah, it’s going to be more soundscape-y, soundtrack-y, grooveishness. [laughs]