John Medeski has made a lot of music in his nearly three decades on the national scene. Whether it’s been with longtime partners-in-crime Billy Martin and Chris Wood as part of Medeski Martin & Wood or with one of his numerous side projects like the Asheville based Saint Disruption collective featuring folks like Jeff “Firewalker” Schmitt, Debrissa McKinney, and the latest collaborators Warren Haynes and nephew Austin Haynes, Medeski has been searching for the best way to express himself and live in the moment.

With the new release of the Saint Disruption single, an inspired reworking of the John Lennon classic “Imagine”, we thought it was a good time to catch up with Medeski. Our own Rex Thomson (Rex-A-Vision) sat down with the improvisational music-making maestro of MMW about the song, Saint Disruption’s draw as a concept and reality, as well as the healing power of music and improvisation.

(Note: Conversation has been edited for length and clarity)

Live For Live Music: Now that the pandemic is receding we’re going to start hearing what all you musicians were crafting these last couple years. Between the loss of life and livelihoods for so many, do you see any chance that something positive might come from all that time away from performing regularly?

John Medeski: I believe it’s both. It’s positive for a lot of reasons and, obviously, it was a huge negative for so many. For me, one of the positives was to suddenly have so much time and space in my life. I haven’t been in one place that long since I was in high school…and I’m like 56.

At my house I have a piano and a lot of other mainly acoustic instruments in my little studio and, like I said, I like making music by myself. It felt really good to be at home with my family. We’ve got 12 acres in the woods. In a way…being forced out of my inability to say “No” to gigs was good. I have so many great things being offered, so many really great people wanting to play and so many projects of mine that I want to do everything.

My musical life was just running me. So…to have that pause…I had no choice because there was nothing to say “Yes” to. You have to have that balance between time spent alone…time spent doing whatever it is that feeds your music…practicing…experiencing life…it can be anything but you have to do it.

Live For Live Music: I feel the strong need to reiterate that none of what we’re expressing should dismiss or in any way diminish the terrible loss we’ve all experienced these last couple years. It’s certainly been devastating.

John Medeski: Of course, of course. One-hundred percent. But when we’re talking about music and art…it’s part of a healing process as well. That’s when music is at its best…as part of a healing of some kind. I think that’s a big part of why everyone is ready to get back out there. I think the healing power is gonna be to a whole other level.

Live For Live Music: Speaking of healing and the pandemic, let’s touch on something positive you’re doing in that regard. As part of one of your coolest projects, there’s a new single being released, a reimagining of John Lennon’s “Imagine”, that just may undo one of the musical crimes of COVID…that truly tone-deaf celebrity version of the song that came out at the start of the pandemic.

John Medeski: (Laughs) That would be great! I hope so! Honestly, doing “Imagine” was one of [Jeff “Firewalker” Schmitt, drummer and co-founder of Saint Disruption]’s ideas. He has a lot of crazy ideas and great ideas and we’re both totally honest with each other about them. I gotta admit when he first brought up the idea of doing “Imagine” in the back of my mind I was kinda rolling my eyes. The song’s been done so many times, and, so many…ways. But I trust his passion so I was like “Alright, let’s see what we can do!”

As we started doing it, putting it together, and arranging it I felt like it came together in a really great way. I think it sounds really good. (Chuckles) I was skeptical at first but the truth is I think it really came out great. To really play a cover song, and I don’t do a lot of that kind of stuff, I wanna have something to say with the song that really sounds like me. That was the thing. How do we create a version of the song that is not like the original but deserves to be out there?

Saint Disruption w/ Warren Haynes – “Imagine” (John Lennon)

Live For Live Music: Sort of like how, early on in MMW, you had a couple of Jimi Hendrix tunes in your rotation but they were clearly organ-based jazz-funk pieces.

John Medeski: Yeah. There’s only a couple Hendrix tunes we would do but we always had to make it our own. We only had a few tunes that were other people’s songs and when we did them we really had to come from someplace real. It had to be a place where we could say something of our own and the song needed to be a vehicle for us to do that. If you’re gonna play someone else’s song then you need to have something of your own to say with it. Or just don’t do it.

Live For Live Music: Saint Disruption is a collective, and you have some other special players joining in on this release, including both Warren Haynes and his nephew Austin. Are you folks assembling an army down there? Should we be worried?

John Medeski: (Chuckles) No, you should feel safer! Yeah, it’s Warren and his nephew Austin who lives in Asheville. It’s part of what makes this unique. This particular project has always been very much of Asheville…and Asheville has always been one of the little creative little centers. Warren is originally from down there…so yeah…it is like assembling a little bit of a musical force down there.

Related: John Medeski, Stanton Moore, Skerik, MonoNeon Plot Late-Night Improv Session In NOLA During Jazz Fest 2022

Live For Live Music: From the outside, it would seem like what you and Jeff are doing with Saint Disruption is providing the backbone and platform to give others a place to create music. Would that be a fair assessment?

John Medeski: Yeah, we’re building a collective. The idea is for that to expand, and be a force of its own. Jeff and I are mainly producing. This was all Jeff’s thing in the beginning. He called me and asked me to play on one of his songs and I got more and more involved.

Now there’s this podcast that’s coming out of it, there’s art and poetry…it’s evolving and taking on a life of its own. It is very much a collective. It is supportive of the whole community down there and there’s a lot of stuff to get out.

Live For Live Music: You touched on music as a healing force. Is it safe to say you pursue a more nature-based path to health and wellness?

John Medeski: Yes, and I have been for a really long time. It’s how I’ve dealt with a lot of health issues in my life. Once you turn 50 you have dealt with, or are dealing with, a few health issues. This is my choice. I just like more Earth-based, natural ways to heal, as used and taught by the indigenous cultures around the world.

Live For Live Music: Music is definitely a powerful tool in healing. When you first got into music did you ever think what you were doing would be such a force in people’s lives?

John Medeski: To be honest I think I made that connection early on. Music was a place I could go and it would help me out. When I was a kid it was something I was sort of…sort of…good at. As a kid, you like to do what you are good at. But also, I can remember real early on where I had these sort of wild, out-of-body musical experiences while I was playing.

Some people might call it a kind of escape but I don’t know. I think music helps you heal. I think emotionally, physically…spiritually…mentally…music can do a lot. I think once you’ve had a moment of it, once you’ve had a taste of it then you really know it. Obviously, I think this speaks more to the individual. If you can find something that helps you out then great.

Traditionally, throughout time, music has been a way to let off steam. To express happiness…sadness…joy…pain. It’s a way to deal with these things. It’s a way to express them in a language that is unique and can express things like no other language.

The power of healing is just a function of how it allows us to express-slash-release these things that matter. Playing for so many years…playing gigs in so many different levels of health at the time. From going on like really sick and then being just fine afterward.

I’ve had bouts of kidney stones throughout my life. I can’t tell you how many shows I’ve played in the agony of kidney stones. No painkillers. But the music gets you through it. I would just call the MMW guys and jump in the camper and travel around playing music. That will do it.

The night that Bruce Lundvall from Blue Note came to see us I was in agony passing one of the worst kidney stones of my life. But I played the gig and it was the best I’d ever played in my life. And we got the record deal! So yeah…music as a healing force has always been a part of it.

With Billy and Chris in MMW there’s this mutual love with these types of music. I’ve always been attracted to ritualistic music. Indigenous music from all around the world be it Africa, the Caribbean, from South America…from North America. These sort of indigenous music are less to purely entertain than to be a part of life value. I’ve always been inspired by this kind of music. Always. Since I was very young, if I saw anything like that in the record stores I just had to buy it. It was cool for me to check out what music was in other kinds of cultures.

Live For Live Music: Before we go any farther I hope someone out there is checking on the viability of maybe the musical vibrations through your stool have some sort of effect on breaking up kidney stones. It would be a much more enjoyable part of the process if there were “Hammond organ” wings in hospitals where they took you if you came in suffering from a kidney stone.

John Medeski: (Laughs) Who knows? There’s probably sound frequencies that could help in all sorts of hospitals. Not just harps playing to people as they pass but pairing the right kind of healing vibration with an illness. Everything is vibration, everything is affected by sound and vibrations. All matter is just a form of vibration slowed to a stable point.

I know there are people studying this, studying the effects different vibrations and sounds have on the body and how they can be used to heal.  I think there’s probably a whole lot more sound, vibrations…music could be doing to help.

Live For Live Music: Switching gears, you’re known as an improvisational force. Do you have a pathological dislike of boundaries?

John Medeski: (Laughs) I like that. Yes, you could say that. “Songs are for cowards.” That’s a Col. Bruce Hampton quote. I remember the first times I was exposed to making music like that…like…playing some small jazz recital with my friends. I was maybe 13 years old and I had never had that experience before. I was making and playing music in the moment.

It put me into this space that was like…while I was in it I was like “Awww wow…there’s nothing else like this!” Nothing else does that. There is something that happens when people are playing together and really vibing in the moment, making music for that moment and it comes together like magic…that is a cathartic experience like nothing else. Nothing else does that.

I love that. That’s what I’ve geared myself towards. It’s what I’ve put myself together for. The problem is you have to be patient sometimes. It’s not always gonna be what you are wanting it or needing it to be. For me, it’s always worth the wait.

Some folks don’t have that kind of patience. They don’t want to take the hike up the mountain to get that great view. They’d rather just go to that same comfortable place they’ve been before. And that’s okay too. A good song is just that. A great piece of music is a great piece of music.

I’m not saying live music is the best…but it does something that nothing else does.

Check out this 40-minute clip of Medeski making purely of the moment music with MMW bassist Chris Woods, The Nth Power drummer Nikki Glaspie, and sax demon Skerik to see some examples of the moments Medeski was describing in the clip below:

Fiya Bomb – “Improv” – New Orleans, LA – 5/1/18

[Video: RexAVision]