I recently had the opportunity to speak with John Medeski, the master keyboardist from Medeski, Martin, and Wood (MMW). Medeski is one of the most influential and innovative jazz artists of today.
scene: What is your motivation to make music?
John Medeski: I do it because I have to. Music is a basic human need. It’s the only job I’ve had since I was 12.
Where do you find your inspiration for a great live performance?
There’s no formula. There’s a certain space between knowing what you’re doing, and doing it. It’s like surfing, snowboarding or any other extreme activity. You just ride the wave. As soon as you start examining it while you’re doing it, it’s over.
A great gig can come from a fancy dinner, or from brown rice and miso soup. Food inspires me. Fuel is always important. But a great gig could even come out of being sick. There are so many different ways to be inspired. For me, it’s not about having a formula; it’s about tuning into what needs to be done for that particular moment. It’s not always easy. Sometimes you try something that worked in the past and it doesn’t work in the present.
How do you incorporate your influences into the music?
My “thing” is to absorb as much as you can. When something strikes you, you learn it, you repeat it, you pull it in to your intuition. That process creates the artist’s palette. Anything could be on that palette, from a helicopter going over your head (makes sound of helicopter passing over his head) to Moroccan music or fine wine.
When I think about influences, I tend to believe in a collective consciousness. People come up with things at the same time. I don’t believe in an overly linear perspective. The history of jazz is much more distorted than that. We don’t really understand the connection between things, all the overlap, who influenced whom, who started what.
In my own explorations as a kid, I discovered little things I’d never heard anybody doing before. Then, I would hear something from the ’60s and they’d be doing exactly what I thought I had discovered. I think people come up with ideas simultaneously. A lot of times, the jazz critic doesn’t really have a good concept of where music actually comes from. Many of the critics tend to think it’s more about this lineage of history, about who did this and who did that — not realizing that it comes from a deeper place. Even if the music does sound like someone else, you can tell, when someone is really in that place, that how he got there is less important than what he’s doing in that moment.
What’s sad is that, with the influence of people like Stanley Crouch and Wynton Marsalis, too often jazz has started to become like classical music, where there’s a way to do this and a way to do that. Innovation gets stifled. Personally, I don’t care what the jazz is. It’s different for everyone. I know what it is for me. We go for that spirit, using improvisation to make music for the moment, in the moment.
Where is that spirit most alive today, beyond what Medeski, Martin, and Wood is doing?
Well, I wouldn’t claim that —
I’ll claim it!
(Laughs). I guess it’s alive anywhere people are playing music that is theirs. It could be punk rock, or Indian music. The thing about jazz is that, because of its harmonic and melodic complexity, it is a very deep language. Because it’s such a deep language, some people would just rather hear that same old children’s story again and again, instead of really starting to philosophize. Those children’s stories are no longer stretching the music or making its language relevant to the world today. I do think it is worth preserving those past styles because they are beautiful. But we have records for that now.
How do you prepare for a gig?
We usually wake up with some green tea and try to get a little exercise. Generally, we like to go to nature and have our minds blown by something that’s beyond human capability in terms of creating.
What is the ideal crowd for MMW?
The perfect crowd stays with us no matter where we go. When we start getting adventurous and dealing in more expressive realms, the best crowd moves with us to outer space and stays there, following the ambiguity, and staying ready for us to lay in the groove. You don’t always find that kind of audience. Sometimes, the bigger crowds are filled with meatheads who just want to hear groove because they’re drunk or haven’t learned about foreplay yet.
Any final comments on the upcoming tour?
We’re going to do our thing — play live and keep it growing.
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MMW appeared at Toad’s last night. To hear music from MMW, tune in to Jazz Instinct on WYBC 1340 am or online @ www.wybc.com every Friday from 2-4pm.
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