It should come as no surprise that, in conversation as in his playing, John Medeski is quick to respond and makes his points emphatically though never heavy handedly. As one third of Medeski Martin & Wood, the keyboardist has played an integral role in exploratory work that has rendered jazz ultra-contemporary while never losing sight (or grasp) of the genre’s roots. Like his two musical partners, Medeski has made the time to contribute to any number of side-projects over the years as both musician and producer, collaborating with The Word, The Campbell Brothers and The Will Bernard Group.
The recently completed Radiolarians series typifies the visionary likes of MMW at work. An innovative concept by which the threesome wrote new original material, fine-tuned it on tour, and then recorded it in the studio, this sequence of events kept both the music and the musicians fresh, at the same time maintaining their audience’s loyalty. No wonder Medeski sounded as lively as he did even as talked from a cell phone while he and Chris Wood drove to a gig: he thrives on being in motion.
I have always enjoyed hearring you play whether w/Billy and Chris or in other contexts. And I must say the end of March show in NYC with Will Bernard, Andy Hess and Stanton Moore was terrific. Can you tell me a little bit about how that came about? It must’ve been a challenge to make it happen in the studio and on the stage given the commitments of each individual.
We had all played together before at various times and talked about doing a project for a long time and we finally got to do it. Will is actually the one who made it happen and it turned out to be fun and challenging at the same time.
I wanted to ask about 'The Radiolarians Series' because I noticed, looking on your website, that the final installment of the three is completed already.
That’s right. It’s mastered and should be released later this year, in the fall or perhaps as early as August.
It may be premature to ask, but is there a consensus within the group about whether it was successful or not?
Oh, it was a great success. The West coast tour we did behind it was one of the best we’ve ever done just like the three gigs in New York City. ‘Radio-larians’ was a way for us to create new music all year, keeping the music fresh and keeping ourselves alive as a band as well. And we feel we did that; the alternative is to play the same stuff all the time or do wholly free playing, which may not be an approach that all of the audience can really appreciate. It’s hard to sell albums these days but we thought we had a means of doing things differently and I think we’d all agree it worked out better than we expected.
When touring for the project, did you get the sense the audience was with you or did the novelty of the material impose some obstacles?
Our audience likes to come and hear us play and improvise, not necessarily to hear songs—though I’m sure there are some they might look for—so the response to the new material was very positive.
I don’t want to destroy the mystery of the creative process, but I did want to ask about what, if any rules, you applied to ‘Radiolarians’; did you have a maximum or minimum number of live shows to prepare or use a similar rule of thumb, in terms of recorded takes, when you went into the studio afterward?
No, there was nothing like that because the whole point was to keep the improvisational aspect of the music alive. We wanted to stay in the moment. We never did more than three takes of a given tune in the studio and we never spent more than four days in the studio ourselves. The last sessions in fact took only two days. It took longer to mix than it did record because Dave (Kent, engineer) might have taken a day on each individual track.
Did you allow him to do the mixing all on his own?
We did because as he house engineer on the road he knew the music and also knows what we like and don’t like. We didn’t want him to feel like we were looking over his shoulder. And besides, he knew the music from hearing some of the rehearsals—he lives above the studio—and from the tour where he was doing the mixes. He was very familiar with the music already.
Is there a feeling within the trio this approach is something you’ll want to try again at some point?
No, I don’t think so. We felt we did what we set out to do with Radiolarians and in fact we are already well into our next project, which will be a box set DVD about the process of wiring and playing music and the influences that go into it.
That’s bound to be interesting because, from seeing you over the years, people are as intent on listening as shaking their asses. The audiences like to figure out what’s happening.
Well, we’ve never thought of ourselves as just a dance band or just a funk band or anything like that. Our influences are what they are and that’s what this box set will explore.
It’s interesting to hear you talk about that, given your comment earlier in the conversation about selling albums. Do you think the cd or the album is close to becoming obsolete at this point?
I don’t think the album is obsolete: People are now buying more albums just fewer CDs. CDs are just a piece of plastic in a plastic box and the graphics are too small---no one’s going to miss them as a part of history when they go away. But musicians do have to have a means of making a living and there’s got to be a link in the process to allow that.
Are you finding that with your own label (Indirecto) it’s more manageable to do your business, if not more profitable?
It’s pretty much the same. The difference is we have complete control. I mean, we put out three albums in a year and we’ve never been able to do that before, just because of the whole behind the scenes process. We’ve had good label relationships though—Blue Note is a great label—but having control of what we do ourselves, that’s the payoff.