John Medeski is keeping busy.
In late February, the jazz-funk heavyweight and member of Medeski, Martin & Wood spent some time at his alma mater giving a master class, participated in a program celebrating the diverse heritage of jazz, and played two sets in Cambridge, Massachusetts to kick off a tour with his newest project, a collaboration with Lettuce’s Adam Deitch and freakout-jazz saxophonist Skerik, called DRKWAV.
DRKWAV features the improvisational prowess of Medeski on keys combined with the more free-jazz leanings of Skerik set to the backbeat of Deitch’s funky rhythms. The album’s eight tracks celebrate the darker aspects of psychedelic jazz, touching on everything from Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew era to Herbie Hancock to the more menacing Albert Ayler compositions.
In the studio, the songs of DRKWAV have a slinky, funky cohesiveness to them that stretch out and breath quite easily. Within the context of the live setting, however, the songs take something of a backseat to the importance of in-the-moment playing and hitting the right notes to titillate and ultimately assist the band in communing with their audience.
Glide caught up with the groove-master and spoke about creating spontaneous improvised music, engaging in a musical community and the elements that produced DRKWAV’s The Purge.
AT: I wanted to ask you a few questions about your new album with Adam Deitch and Skerik, The Purge. Firstly, I attended your show in Cambridge. I saw you were handling three sets of keyboards at The Regattabar with DRKWAV.
It was four keyboards: B-Hammond, ARP String Ensemble, the Korg Delta and a Wurlitzer electric piano, and these Taurus pedals – kind of like synthesizer bass pedals.
So that’s what it was… I heard a very fluid bassline throughout the evening and kept looking around thinking, “There’s no bassist here!”
Sure, [the Taurus bass pedals] are a way for an organ player to play the bass.
So this configuration of the band with Adam Deitch and Skerik had played together in the past, but The Purge is the first time that you’ve recorded together.
Yeah, we’ve played together and kind of realized there was something different going on. So, we decided to go into the studio and see what happened. When we were creating that record, we were all very psyched and happy with it. We felt like it had a life of its own beyond and different from any one of us individually.
We made it last year, so we’re very finally putting it out and we’re very excited. We recorded it and then had a Kickstarter campaign to kind of make it happen.
Did you have a central, cohesive focus point that you all wanted to touch on? What informs The Purge?
You know, we just got together and we played. Music is… I honestly feel like too much music, we try to talk about it. We forgot what music really is. A lot of other bands, they have concepts: “We’re gonna do this kind of thing; we’re gonna do that kind of thing.” You know, we don’t do that, we just played. We didn’t really talk a lot about it. We let the music do its thing and the playing went in this direction.
It would have been very obvious for us to have done something a little more easy to listen to, but it’s not in any of our natures. We like music that pushes, and takes you on a journey. So that’s what really happened. We got it together.
When you play them live, do you find the songs on The Purge to be good blueprints to launch from?
Yeah. Making the record and working on the record and having it come out as it did definitely informs what we do live. But, it’s our getting together and playing together that created the record, and in a way it’s just what we do when we get together. We can always fall back on any of those pieces of music on the album, but really the idea is a sort of cinematic groove, a textural journey is what it’s about.
We can do the improvising because both Skerik and Deitch are incredible improvisers. I think there’s something that happens when you really tune into the moment and you’re spontaneously composing music that is both right here and now that’s special, and as long as we’re able to do that we’ll do it. If we need to play a tune, we can always play a tune if we need something cohesive to launch off of. And those tunes off the record are just really fun to play, because we like those tunes.
But to me, that first set of The Regattabar was very cinematic. I mean, we all thought it was real good. (laughs) So, I guess that’s the template of the gigs. Play what needs to be played, right then and there. If we need to pull something from the record, we will, but it’s really more about the vibration and the experience, and it should be different every time.
I noticed you were all over New England Conservatory last week, and I had the opportunity to see you play with the NEC Jazz Ensemble. Thanks for coming out there.
Oh yeah, of course. I went to school there, and Ken Schaphorst who leads the big band, we went to school together. We’ve done stuff together over the years, when he was getting his doctorate I went out there and did some stuff. I love Ken, he’s doing great things, and it’s good to give back a little bit – I taught a master class and gave a couple of private lessons while I was there.
It’s funny, I sort of feel like any way I can help some people skip some mistakes (laughs), it’s just gonna make the music better in general.
The compositions of Ra-Kalam Bob Moses and Ken Schaphorst, alongside the Ellington and your Medeski pieces, were beautiful.
They are incredible composers.
It was very cool. And it was great to see you at Regattabar. I think you achieved a plateau with this album.
Going in and recording kind of helped solidify the concept. It wasn’t preconceived, you know, we observed it, worked with it, sculpted it and sort of received it. So now we are responsible for it! (laughs) We have to keep it dark and make people purge.
Live photos by Marc Lacatell