Massry Center for the Arts
December 7, 2013
by Jeff Waggoner
By the time John Medeski landed his bald head and broad shoulders in front of a 9’ Steinway at the College of St. Rose, the audience knew he meant business.
Maybe it was the big jug of water, the boxes, or the handkerchief for head-mopping -- a la Oscar Peterson -- that he arranged around the instrument. Or maybe it was his denim and turf boots.
But on the night of December 7 his job was improvising his way through a recital. To bring in just what was in his head -- roughly 40 years of devotion to music -- and play what was in it. And Medeski has a lot in his head. Not just Cecil Taylor or James Booker or whichever jazz or blues pianist you could name. But there is also Charles Ives and Oliver Messiaen.
One listener also heard -- while admiring Medeski’s improvisational genius – the influence of Arvo Pärt, the Estonian tintinnabulist. There is just no sameness to Medeski’s play.
Perhaps that should be expected from the keyboardist from Medeski, Martin and Wood group, famous for its funky, “avant-groove.” Or someone who plays not just piano, but also Hammond organ, melodica, mellotron and clavinet -- among other devices with keys. That versatility might explain the contents of the various boxes he brought with him.
For starters, he cued up “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child,” and played his way seamlessly though several standards and originals, including few numbers that are on his new, solo acoustic piano album, “A Different Time,” which reviewers like to refer to as “meditative.”
But it the point wasn’t just to showcase the songs on his new album.
The recital had different ingredients, including a healthy dose of boot-stomping blues.
After a while, he stopped playing to acknowledge his first jazz piano teacher – Capital Region stalwart Lee Shaw – who came to hear her former student, whom she taught when they were both living in Florida. Medeski, who at the time was around 11, apparently learned more than just jazz piano from Shaw. He also shows a great deal of Shaw-like humility and graciousness. While his playing is often hip, Medeski’s personality is ernest.
At the piano, he turns. You think you hear an impressionist’s melody, but the whole while he’s twisting the rheostat until he’s pounding the piano down to the bricks.
What Medeski is doing alone at the keyboard is breathing life back into the idea of Third Stream, and perhaps getting back to his roots as a musician. The kind of music he learned at the New England Conservatory (where Gunther Schuller, the originator of the term “Third Stream,” was president for years.)
Third Stream, if you have forgotten, is that effort to combine classical music with improvisational jazz. The Modern Jazz Quartet provided perhaps the best example of the style.
And Ran Blake, a Medeski teacher, is also an adherent. Blake, pianist and NEC professor, is a major influence. Blake believes in owning a song before you play it. Learn it, sing it, live with it -- until the song is a piece of you. It’s the definition of integrity.
If there is a single thing that the listener left with the night of the Medeski recital it’s how real, how genuine his music is.
Jeff Waggoner has written book, CD and concert reviews for publications such as Down Beat, Jazz Times, Blues Access and The New York Times.