John Medeski is a name synonymous with many different types of music, but for the past thirty years, Medeski has also been a rooted fixture of organ experimentation, performance, and recording. Throughout his career with Medeski, Martin, & Wood, countless ranges of collaborations, and solo projects he has opened up a new space for the organ in popular music. Check out how he got started on the organ and his thoughts on how it fits into various styles of music.
When did the organ first interest you?
I had played the B3 when I was younger a little bit; I guess when I was in my teens. I never really imagined having one or getting that into it though. I listened a lot to Larry Young and all of the Jimmy Smith stuff and I loved it, but I was a piano player as a kid. When I went to music school at the New England Conservatory, we were playing a jam session in one of the concert halls one night late. In the back behind the hall, we found this thing under a drape that turned out to be a B3. So we set it up and turned it on and I don’t know, something happened that night. I just fell in love with it. I started exploring it less from the derivative standpoint and more just as an instrument of sonic adventure. I started really playing with the sounds and watching it work. It just blew my mind and I fell in love with it. That was when I was 17 or 18.
A little after that I ended up in a blues band called Mr. Jellybelly’s Jazz & Blues Band in the Boston area. He was a B3 fanatic, and so was the trumpeter, so they ended up sharing tons of organ music with me. Jellybelly had all of the stuff on 45 and the cassettes. We were playing like seven nights a week, so I really got into playing the organ at that point. From that perspective it really took off from there. The really interesting thing about the Hammond is the sonic explorations that can be done on it. In general most everything I hear people doing is just Jimmy Smith knockoff, Larry Young knockoff, you know, all of this derivative stuff. It’s all great music and there are people who do it fantastically, but for me personally, it’s been about the sonic potential of the instrument as a vehicle for creating sound and color. As much as I love Larry Young and Jimmy McGriff, I also love church music and Sun Ra and everything else out there. So for me, that’s what has been a blast about playing the organ for the past 30 years or whatever.
Do you have a favorite format to play the organ in whether that be a trio, a certain genre, or what not?
I love everything about it. I love playing it solo, I love playing it duo with a drummer, I love playing obviously with Medeski, Martin, and Wood which is more of an R&B or jazz trio setting, not a traditional organ trio. I love the instrument in every setting and bringing it into settings that it hasn’t traditionally been used in as well. I think one of my favorite things is using the organ with people who don’t even usually have keyboard synths. The work I’ve done with, you know, Robert Randolph or the Campbell Brothers for instance. They traditionally hate keyboard players because traditionally keyboard players get in the way of everything. They usually just turn the organ down. So for me it’s been fun playing with those guys. I also worked with this Afro-Peruvian singer Susana Baca and they certainly have very few keyboards in their traditional music. So yeah, I just love the instrument. Like I said, sonically it just has so much potential outside of the stuff we already know.
A lot of piano players today don’t necessarily pick up the organ; they pick up organ synths. Do you think any of the organ synths are close to sounding up to par?
Not even remotely. Not even close. No. I mean, it sounds like a recording of an organ. If you know how an organ generates sound, it’s amazing. Even though it’s electric, it’s an acoustic instrument. The way it throws the sound around the room and everything that it does; that’s what it’s about. It’s just one of those instruments, like the piano, that cannot be reproduced digitally in any way. Not even close. I’ve played the new digital Hammonds, and it’s fantastic because if you get one, you know everything is going to be working on it. If you go places with old organs, you never know what’s going to work, so that’s always kind of a drag. They do all of that normal organ stuff and they sound good. But for a lot of stuff that I love to do, which is the sonic stuff and the really exploring the sound and getting into the really high frequencies, the digital organs just fall short. They crap out. They just can’t get up there. They don’t duplicate those frequencies correctly and for me that’s a drag. But like I said, they’re consistent and they are pretty good.
But most of the stuff you get on the computer is a joke. The problem with that whole universe is that everybody has grown up listening to recordings more and more. That’s the world we live in. So yeah, when you play the organ sound coming out of the computer, it sounds like a recording or an organ. But every recording of an organ falls short of what it sounds like when you’re standing right next to it or sitting next to it and playing it. There’s nothing like it. That’s the way it is though. But for me what is interesting and at this point in my life, what I enjoy and want to do is deal with sounds. Real sounds here and now in our presence. There are incredible things that can be done with digital technology, but the innovation of something else seems like a waste of time to me. What’s fascinating is how we can use all of this stuff as instruments to create something we hear in our heads that we can’t get any other way. Or something we feel, something coming from us. Why not, you know?
I guess the B3 is heavy. But you know what? I’ve carted mine around for 25 years. Now we have help, but we didn’t in the beginning. We carried that thing up spiral staircases at the Elbow Room in Chicago year after year. It was the three of us with some help from the club. I’ve rolled a Leslie down Avenue A to Houston Street to play at the Knitting Factory. So I personally have no sympathy for lazy keyboardists.
Medeski, Martin, & Wood recently released a live acoustic album entitled “Free Magic.” On the tails of another acoustic tour, here’s what Medeski had to say about the album, some future collaborations, and the MMW connection:
“Every so often we like to go and do an acoustic run, just to hone different aspects of our music. It’s a different vibe. So we did it in 2007 and we happened to have recorded it. We went back and listened to it and thought, ‘Wow, we should put some of this out.’ Now that we have our own record label, we can do what we want. So we’re putting it out on the tails of this acoustic tour we’re doing right now.”
Future MMW Projects
“We’re talking with Vernon Reid about producing and working with us on a record with vocalists. All different vocalists doing different tunes we love. Being a backing band is another thing that we do that hasn’t really been documented that much. It’s something that we love.”
“We’re also talking about in general doing some different collaborative things. Working with [John] Scofield has been an incredible collaboration for us. It becomes a whole different band. That’s true with other artists too, so we’re kicking around ideas about working with different people.”
Medeski, Martin, & Wood
“One of the things that makes us stay together is that we haven’t run out of creativity together. It’s very comfortable. We have a language that we’ve developed over 20-something years. It’s hard to beat that. We all play with a lot of other people and have a lot of different projects going on, but there’s something to the comfort and ease. Since one of the most important things to us is spontaneity and improvisation, that’s the key for us. The very first time we got together and played, it was instant. There was no talking about anything, we just played.”
Alfred Cortot (“Jack Bruce turned me onto him.”)
Gerhard Kubik (Various African field recordings)
Interview by Eric Sandler (@ericsandler)