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John Medeski, Lee Shaw

Lee Shaw

Lee Shaw, Rich Syracuse

Jeff Siegel

John Medeski

Photos by Rudy Lu

Zankel Music Center
Skidmore College
Saratoga Springs, NY
April 1, 2011

by J Hunter

The lights went down, and out walked former Fort Lauderdale student/current worldwide monster John Medeski – alone. He smiled and waved at the mix of Skidmore students and longtime Lee Shaw fans, climbed onto the platform holding his Hammond B3 organ, and started playing an ex tempore mash-up of gospel choir music and horror-film soundtrack. It was definitely cool, but a question hung around my head as Jeff “Siege” Siegel slid behind his drum kit and started working the cymbals: Where was Lee? I’d heard she’d taken a fall a few weeks before, and when you’re in your 80’s, that’s not something you just bounce back from. Was Medeski stalling? Did this just become a Medeski Siegel and Syracuse show?

Then, as Medseki built chords on top of chords, Shaw finally came onstage, accompanied by bassist Rich Syracuse and flashing that million-dollar smile we all love. She settled herself on her stool as Medeski shifted the music into a sweet soul groove. Syracuse was rocking a pretty good smile himself as he joined in the fun, and then Lee started playing and she was right on point as the tune revealed itself as a hopped-up take on Duke Ellington’s “Love You Madly.” Shaw’s piano simply danced while Medeski barely comped, smiling as he watched his former instructor do the thing she’s been doing for over six decades.

“We are so glad to see you,” Lee enthused when the tune ended. Then she echoed the Duke: “And we do love you madly.”

But Shaw wasn’t done with the Duke, as she led the band into Ellington’s trademark closer, “Mood Indigo.” Ellington wasn’t a pounder at the piano; he played like he dressed – always elegant. Shaw’s been showing her bluesy side the last couple of years, but she’s always had that same elegant touch, so this piece was right in her wheelhouse. Syracuse rode the bottom of the neck on his solo, his smile forcing his eyes to squint, as Siege painted with brushes. It was simply great, and it just got better as the quartet pulled out a sweet version of “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore.” The three-song set filled your head with images of album titles: Together Again 2: John, Lee, and Duke!

Of course, there was that disc that dropped a few months ago to get to, and the group did it up proud. If anything, Medeski eclipsed his solo-piano spot on Together with this evening’s torrent of classical thunder. It could have been Mahler or Stravinsky, what with all the darkness and drama that lived inside it, but it still led perfectly into the soaring MMW tune “Where’s Sly?” Siegel and Syracuse were textbook wingmen as Shaw watched it all from a seat by the stage. Medeski worked his own piano while Shaw and her boys romped through “Holiday”, with Siege flexing his muscles on the introductory vamp. Medeski even revealed (at Lee’s prompting) the inside story behind his funky piece “Wiggly’s Way.” (I won’t go through the whole thing, but it involves the coolest cab driver in Domenica.

But the best part of the show (for me, anyway) came after that Ellington medley: Medeski sat down at the piano for the first time that night while Syracuse and Siegel left the stage, and John & Lee did a four-handed duet. Lee soloed fluidly off Medeski’s foundation while Medeski intently watched his former instructor. If you concentrated, you could hear them listening to each other. The rhythm section re-joined them in the middle of this smooth, with Syracuse bowing off of a high figure Medeski was playing. Eventually it was Medeski’s turn to solo, which he played using only one finger, and that was all he needed to kick that tune in just the right spot. The one-finger runs turned into crystalline figures, and then it all ended with one soft chord.

“John Medeski,” Shaw asked over the applause, smiling like a winner, “what should we call that?”

They never came up with a title for the improvisation. Me? I call it tremendous.

J HUNTER is a former announcer/producer for radio stations in the Capital Region and the Bay Area, including KSJS/San Jose (where he was Assistant Music Director/Jazz Programming) and Q104 WQBK/Albany. He is a frequent contributor to the web site All About Jazz and to the monthly music magazine State of Mind. He currently resides in Clifton Park.