Interview: John Medeski (solo, Medeski Martin & Wood, Bill Evans)

John Medeski talks to Hit Channel about the score for "The Curse" series, upcoming European tour with Bill Evans & the Vansband Allstars, Medeski Martin & Wood discography, playing with Jaco Pastorius and many more.

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HIT CHANNEL EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: March 2024. We had the great honour to talk with an extremely talented musician: John Medeski. He is best known as the keyboard player of the jazz fusion trio Medeski Martin & Wood. He has also played with John Scofield, Warren Haynes, Phil Lesh, Trey Anastasio, Jack Bruce, Vernon Reid and many others. He recently wrote the score for “The Curse” series. In May he will tour Europe with Bill Evans and the Vansband Allstars, including two shows at Athina Live in Athens on 11 May. Read below the very interesting things he told us:


Were you surprised when they asked you to write music for “The Curse” series?

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Yes, I was very surprised because I haven’t done a lot of soundtracks, so, yeah, I was surprised and honoured.


You ‘ve said that the music for “The Curse” was more contemplative, just like another parallel entity. Please describe to us your perspective on it.

Well, the idea for the music was: We didn’t want the music to define and to tell people what to think, because a lot of times music is very programmatic, it goes with the scene. The whole idea was that it will almost be like another perspective and almost like another character. That’s how I looked at it.


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How much different process is it to write music for a series than creating something from scratch without any specific reference?

I think it’s very different because a lot of the music that I do, you just have to listen to, it’s more fleshed out and full, so that the music itself can almost inspire visuals. Then, writing for a show like this, you already have the dialogue and the visuals, so the music tends to be sparser. It’s a part of the whole feeling as opposed to creating the whole feeling.


“Parking Lot” is very atmospheric. What inspired you to write this?

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Really, it was just looking at the scenes and just finding inspiration in the cinematography, the angles, the colours and in the action, what that was that was happening. It inspired a certain feeling and then I would try to create something that maybe would take the viewer to a different place. Then, maybe music that would be following this scene will do.


Could you tell us a few words about the vibrating sound of “Apartment Complex” from “The Curse” score?

I used a lot of different keyboards, so there were some synthesizers and it was very moody.


How did you come up with the idea to cover John Lennon’s “Imagine” with Saint Disruption featuring Warren Haynes in 2022?

That was my collaborator, Jeff Schmitt’s idea, because it was the anniversary of the song and he really loved the song, so it was really his idea. Then we created this arrangement of it and I got Warren Haynes to come in and play guitar and just try to reinvent it musically.


Was it an interesting experience to make the “Hudson” album in 2017 with Jack DeJohnette (drums), John Scofield (guitar) and Larry Grenadier (bass)?

Yes, it was. I mean, I’ve played with John over the years quite a bit, but I never dreamed in my life that I will ever play with Jack DeJohnette, so that was an incredible honour. It was really fun making that record with them and then to get to tour with them too it was really incredible.


What will be your contribution to the upcoming Bill Evans (Miles Davis -saxophone) tour?

My contribution is gonna be my music. I am gonna put a couple of my songs, a couple of new songs of mine and then we are gonna be doing a bunch of Bill Evans songs from his new record and a lot of improvisation. So, there will be chemistry and dialogue between us all.


What should fans expect from the European tour in May with Bill Evans & the Vansband Allstars?

It’s gonna be really great. It’s a great band (ed: with Keith Carlock on drums and Felix Pastorius on bass) and we are gonna be doing some of Bill’s tunes from his new record that is coming out and there is gonna be some of my songs. Yeah, I’m very excited to play with these guys. It’s gonna be really good.


How much has your approach to keyboards changed over the years?

I guess it’s always changing and evolving. My main approach to whatever music I’m playing and whoever I’m playing with is to add something that supports the music somehow. I ‘m not really so interested in showing off and doing solos and everything. It’s more about whatever the music calls for, trying to listen to the whole picture and add something with the keyboards that enhances or complements the music and the other players that I am playing with to find common ground, you know.


Was it a life-changing experience to record “Shack-man” (Medeski Martin & Wood -1996) in a shack in Hawaii?

(Laughs) Yes, it was. It was an intense and amazing experience. It was our idea to record there because we loved playing there, but it was also technically very challenging. We had solar power, we had to get a generator, we had to get all the instruments out there in the jungle. It was some of the first experiments we did. It was only 8 tracks, so there weren’t a lot of tracks that we used; you usually have an unlimited amount of Pro-Tools and more tracks, normally. Having the limitation of the 8 tracks really helped us focus on what to do, we had to plan ahead and it was really about capturing a certain space that we got to in the shack. We all got to in the shack.


There is no guitar player in Medeski Martin & Wood. How much different is the dynamics in the band when you are joined by John Scofield (Miles Davis)?

It’s very different because certainly there is a new personality, a new voice, so we get into in more accompanying mode. We can really focus on supporting him, his solos and his music, so it’s very different.


The Medeski Scofield Martin & Wood version of “Light My Fire” (from “Juice” -2014) is amazing. How did it come about?

Oh, thank you! I think Chris Wood (bass) might have brought that one in, so we decided that we wanted to do that song. Whenever we cover a song, it’s always important that we are really saying something of our own with it, otherwise I don’t think there is a point to play your cover song; to just play a song because people know it. I’m not interested in that so much. So, we really tried to find our own way with it and I think we did.


Who are you influences as a Hammond player?

There are so many! Larry Young (Tony Williams Lifetime), Jimmy McGriff, Jimmy Smith, (ed: Olivier) Messiaen’s classical organ music, Art Neville, Wild Bill Davis. I’m listening to everybody, really (laughs).


I am a huge Jack Bruce (Cream -bass, vocals) fan. Did you enjoy doing the “Spectrum Road” album (2012) and tours with Jack Bruce, Vernon Reid (Living Colour -guitar) and Cindy Blackman Santana (Santana, Joss Stone, Lenny Kravitz -drums) as Spectrum Road?

I did very much. They were really incredible. It was so great to work with Jack and get to know him and I really love him and he was an incredible force both as a human and as a musician and it was really a wonderful experience to play with him and sort of learn from him and I played on his record right after that (ed: “Silver Rails” -2014). We recorded with him at Abbey Road which was also a great experience and yeah, it was really an incredible blessing to get to work with Jack before he passed.


Did you enjoy playing with John McLaughlin during the Spectrum Road performance at Montreux Jazz Festival in 2012?

I did. It went by so quickly, you know. I would love to play with him more.


How did you get to play with Jaco Pastorius when you were 16 years old in Florida?

I was in a band with a bass player who was very good friends with Jaco and Jaco’s brother-in-law, Pauly (ed: Horn -drums) was in the band too, so we would play these gigs and Jaco would come down and come up on the second set and stay up all night. I would play a few gigs at the same club where they would have a jazz brunch or lunch, and I played with him several times there too; he was playing standards and things like that. The first time that I ever played with him, which was before all that, I was studying with a piano player named Alex Darqui, who was an incredible piano player and grew up with Jaco and Jaco was playing with him at a little spot in Fort Lauderdale. I went down and I got to see them and Alex invited me to sit in, so I went up to sit in, but then Jaco switched over and played drums (laughs), which is pretty wild and he was a great drummer.


Did you get on well with him as a person?

I did. He was very-very kind to me. Very generous, very supportive. I would sit down at the piano and play stuff, he would ask me to play classical music and he would sit down and do some of these harmonies and it was really great.


How important is improvisation to you?

It’s everything. That’s what I love to do: Making spontaneous music, making music in the moment, for the moment, is what I love to do more than anything. It’s what I’m where to do (laughs).


Why does the music you make have to be personal?

I guess because that’s the music that I like to hear, is music that is personal. It’s the music that fed me and feeds my life. So, that’s what I wanna do, I wanna do that kind of music.


How did your association with Phish and the jam scene in general start and evolve?

When we started there was nothing called “the jam band scene” in existence. We evolved as it came, we were part of the beginning of it. We didn’t even know who Phish was. I remember we were playing in a club in New York and these guys came up after the gig and they said: “Hey, we are from the band Phish and we like your music” and I said: “Nice to meet you”. I had no idea who they were and then somebody said to me: “Hey, do you know that they sold out Madison Square Garden tonight?” (laughs) and I said: “Nope. I don’t know that”. They used to play one of our CD’s either in between sets or before the gig, so it really turned a lot of people on to our music, I think. They were very generous in that way, putting our music out there for people to listen to, it turned a lot of people on to us.


How much artistic freedom do you have on other people’s albums and concerts?

I don’t really know. I have to think about that. People usually call me because they know what I do and who I am, so they usually want me to come in and be myself. So, I ‘m free to be myself, but anytime I am playing with somebody their music, I really listen to their music and try to do whatever the music calls for, whatever style it’s in.


Do you have memories from the Medeski Scofield Martin & Wood show in Athens in 2014?

Yeah, that was a funny show. I think that’s the only time I’ve been to Athens. It was great. I am looking forward to coming back, because it was my only trip there.


How challenging is it for you to play Grateful Dead material live with Phil Lesh, who is a hero of mine?

I didn’t really grow up listening to the Grateful Dead, so for me it’s a challenge because we play a lot of different songs and I have to learn all these songs (laughs) for the gigs. Phil never repeats a song. We do four nights and we never play one song twice for four nights, so it’s a lot of music. Phil plays the songs but he doesn’t like song and solos; he likes everyone to be playing together collectively. He is into collective improvisational experience, which I really love.


How much have your indigenous music influences affected your sound?

I think probably a lot, but more just in spirit, because I love a lot of music from all over the world and I tend to gravitate to simpler folk music from all cultures. I like music to feel that pure.


Are you optimistic about the future of jazz music?

(Laughs) Ha, I don’t know. I don’t even know what that means anymore. I mean, there are so many great young players out there now and new music coming up that’s really incredible. Yeah, it’s pretty amazing. I guess I would say I am optimistic; it’s evolving and I’m really hearing a lot of new music. For me the thing about jazz that I love is improvisation and when jazz is imitating something from the past, to me that’s more like classical music. But I think a lot of these young players know all of this history, but then they are really expressing themselves through it in a new way and that’s beautiful.


Do you have any musical ambitions left?

(Laughs) I do. I have a lot of different things that I wanna do and keep doing. Exactly what, I don’t know, I can’t say, but yeah, my ambition is to keep growing, keep getting better and keep getting deeper.


There is a funny photo of you and John Scofield wearing bibs in a seafood restaurant in Bari, Italy. What really happened?

(Laughs) They put bibs on us. I guess they thought we were snobby Americans, I don’t know. But they put bibs on us because I guess the food was messy. It was a good meal, I can tell you that.


How did you come up with idea to record “Let’s Go Everywhere” (2008) a children’s album with Medeski Martin & Wood?

Well, Bill (ed: Martin -drums) and Chris just had some kids and I think like a lot of musicians who make kids’ records, they started to realize that there are not very many good kids’ records out there (laughs), so we wanted to make a kids’ record that you wanna them listen to, maybe the parents alike, too.


Jimi Hendrix’s music, George Harrison’s music, Sun Ra’s music have also a strong spiritual aspect. Is today’s music spiritual?

Yeah. I think there is some that is. It’s like anything. I think there are people who are still doing that. It’s different. You always can find things that have that special something.


Do you think because of the streaming services listening to an album from start to finish is now becoming a kind of lost art?

I think, in general, it is. Also, more people are into vinyl now and playing records, as well. So, it’s both happening, but in general people’s attention span is not what it used to be. People pop around at different things, they ‘d throw on and play a list created by the algorithm. Yeah, in a lot of ways, it’s a great way to hear music you had never thought or heard of, but it’s different than when I grew up.


Who is the person you have the best musical connection on stage?

Oh, that’s hard to say, so many. You know, Medeski Martin & Wood, we had a chemistry by playing together for 30 years. It’s hard to beat that, but Scofield… I mean, a lot of people. Pretty all of these. That’s why I do the tour with Bill (ed: Evans), because we have a really good connection. It sounds like one of the reasons I’m coming out with Bill in May.


Could you tell us a couple of your favourite albums, except John Coltrane’s “A Love Supreme” (1965)?

Oh God, that’s hard to say, there are so-so-so many, you know. I would say there is a new record, Meshell Ndegeocello’s “The Omnichord Real Book” is an incredible record, it came out last year (2023) and it’s really mind-blowing. It won a Grammy for Best Alternative Jazz Album last year. It’s really amazing. Bob Marley’s “Talkin’ Blues” record (ed: live album -1991) is a favourite from the past. Arthur Rubinstein’s “Chopin Waltzes” (1964) is another favourite of mine, for the RCA recordings. I don’t know, there are so many.


Are there any latest news from the Medeski Martin & Wood camp?

No, we haven’t done much lately. We took a break and the break has just continued. We have a recording that we did a few years back and there is a little film about us recording it and the record will come out sometime in the coming year I think.


Do you like Brent Mydland (Grateful Dead) as a Hammond player?

(Laughs) Yeah, he’s great. Yeah, absolutely. I didn’t grow up really listening to his music, but I ‘ve since checked him out quite a bit and he is fantastic.


It’s better to watch him on video.

It’s great to watch him.


A huge “THANK YOU” to Mr. John Medeski for his time. I should also thank Mrs. Marlee Taylor for her valuable help.

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