John Medeski continues to innovate with latest LP, Mad Skillet

L-R - John Medeski, Terence Higgins, Will Bernard, Kirk Joseph - image - by permission

Reno – Keyboardist John Medeski will appear at the Crystal Bay Casino on Lake Tahoe on Wednesday February 20 with the group who played on Medeski’s latest album, Mad Skillet.  For some insight, Brian Bahouth spoke with John Medeski by phone and offers this mix of words and music …

I asked Medeski how he hooked up with the Dirty Dozen Brass Band rhythm section featuring  sousaphone player Kirk Joseph and drummer Terrence Higgins.

“I’ve been a fan of brass band music for a long time, since I first heard it,” Medeski said.  “So I guess the idea of sousaphone functioning as the bass wasn’t very strange to me or it’s not like I didn’t consider it as an option, you know.  I met Kirk Joseph (sousaphonist) and Terence Higgins (drummer) in 1999 when I was producing the Dirty Dozen record Buck Jump, and ever since then I’ve had it in my mind that I wanted to do something with Kirk and Terrence as a rhythm section … and it just sort of progressed …

“Years go by and it’s hard to do everything you ever think of, but Will (guitar player Will Bernard) and I had been doing some gigs that came out of his record Blue Plate Special and we started playing in New Orleans every year at Jazz Fest, and at a certain point four years ago we got Kirk and Terrance as the rhythm section, so it’s me and Will and Kirk and Terrance, and we would play one night of music, and it felt really good and natural and felt like, I don’t know, it had that some special thing that I can’t really put into words.  It felt like a band. Something was happening when we got together that was different than any of us on our own. To me, that’s what makes a band special when the sum is greater than the parts. A lot of the projects I’ve been involved with, that’s kind of how it happened. It’s all been part idea and then part natural evolution, and that’s what this band is too. It basically evolved out of the music just having a certain energy and a certain quality that I felt like I had to record this.”

A trademark of Medeski’s work is an ability to make an improvised song sound tightly arranged.  I asked how much of Mad Skillet was arranged and how much was spontaneous? Medeski chuckled and said he liked that I found it difficult to tell.

“I feel like that about most improvised music that there should be … there should be some seamlessness to a melody and then what is improvised and what is arranged, it should all feel natural like it’s happening organically and like it was meant to be that way, so it’s important that whatever the material that’s written informs the songs.  In Skillet it’s a combination of all that. There were a couple pieces that were complete where we came in with some of the melody and we play it around, and it’s different every time too … we start playing and things evolve, and we’re listening and we’re reacting, and the arrangement almost creates itself when everybody is really listening and playing and being egoless in giving into the music and doing whatever needs to happen.”

The kernel of the Mad Skillet collection of players formed when Medeski and guitarist Will Bernard began jamming together at festivals and gigs.

“Will is a phenomenal guitar player.  He has a lot of records of his own with different groups.  He’s played with a lot of different people. He’s one of the most versatile guitar players out there.  He’s from the Bay Area originally and was in that scene and is now living in New York.

“The first time I played with Will was in New Orleans at a Stanton Moore Trio gig,” Medeski continued.  “And ever since then … he’s so amazing that if I ever get the opportunity to, I played on his record Blue Plate Special, and then we started playing every year at jazz ‘fest, and that’s how this band kind of evolved, out of that.

“The thing I like about Will, is that he can play a lot of different kinds of music.  He’s a great musician, and we love a lot of the same music, so there’s definitely a real connection there, and we both have a certain affinity for New Orleans music and we’re always learning, and being out with these guys really helps.  Because we’re learning every time we get together we’re learning more about the history of the music and the actual history of New Orleans, and it all just helps the music grow.”

Mad Skillet was recorded at the Living Room, a studio housed in a Depression-era church straight across the Mississippi River from downtown New Orleans.  Medeski sculpted and mixed the sound with noted engineer Scott Harding or Scotty Hard.  I asked Medeski about the overall production values on Mad Skillet.

“If you’re going to put out a record, you want it to have … I want it to be … different than just a recording of a live gig,” Medeski said.  “Live records are great, but when you’re making a record, you want it to be a work of art on it’s own, so that’s where production comes in. We treat each song differently.  We get different sounds, different drum sounds, different processing on different instruments in order to create a certain atmosphere, and that’s what we do in Mad Skillet.

“And I worked with one of my favorite engineers, Scott Harding, Scotty Hard, who did several M, M & W records.  We actually worked on the Dirty Dozen record back in 1999.  He co-produced the first Word record, so we have a really great relationship, and Scotty, he’s a master of mixing, so getting him to be part of this is half of why it sounds the way it does.”

On many of Medeski’s numerous and diverse recordings he sometimes takes a break from playing melody and shapes sound into soundscapes, for me he oftentimes creates a sense of place. I asked if he knowingly creates soundscapes.

“As a musician, I am interested in all the sonic possibilities of all the instruments I play.  I like to explore the sonic possibilities and I definitely … I definitely see music like that, and it’s, and Psychedelic Rhino is definitely is one that is more of a soundscape type piece. I’m using a lot of Mellotron on it for the orchestral sounds, so that piece is sculpted in that way. That piece is based on some improvisations we did in the studio, and we created the structure of the form in the studio, but then when I mixed it we took it to the next level, and I added some more keyboards.  I kind of re-shaped the tune in editing and made it into the piece that it is now.”

The one cover song on Mad Skillet is a daring choice, Sun Ra’s classic The Golden Lady.

“I really relate to his (Sun Ra’s) music in a really deep way and always have for some reason why I don’t know. I just really understand him and his music. From my perspective it just makes a lot of sense and it feels very natural and the diversity of it, the humor, the depth, all those things. I just love it. I guess that’s why we picked that tune as our cover tune because that’s a great melody, and we were able to give it a different kind of groove than the original.

“For me, to do a cover tune, I feel it’s important to not just regurgitate the original wording because that’s already out there. That’s already been done, and you have to be able to do it as well, so it’s important for me, when I play someone else’s music that the song inspires something different and you shed a different light on the song”

John Medeski plays several instruments but is noted for his ability to manipulate the legendary Hammond B3 organ. Medeski’s attention to tone and phrasing is evident throughout Mad Skillet. We asked the veteran keyboardist about the importance of tone.

“Sound is everything.  Because really at the end of the day, what is music but the shaping of sound into something, so it’s really important to me, and the Hammond organ to me is an incredible instrument as far as the depth of, or the limitless sonic potential, and I’ve always seen that, so I’m always like exploring like that, but at the same time, yes, I love Jimmy Smith, Jimmy McGriff, and Lonnie Smith, Larry Young, and I love, you know, Art Neville … it’s endless the organ players we associate with the classic organ sound, but I guess I don’t just like to imitate it, you know.  I want to have my own connection to the instrument beyond just what I’ve heard before. It comes from the sounds the instrument is capable of itself. When I look at the, when I sit down at the Hammond, and I love all this music I’ve heard, but I’m also looking at the instrument like a child. Like ‘what is this instrument, what are it’s possibilities. I don’t want to be limited by what anybody else has done.”

For much more from John Medeski, listen to the mix of words and music embedded above …