Being John Medeski

John Medeski has been known to make strong snap judgments. Imagine this: as a child prodigy, he was groomed to become one of the country's leading concert
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John Medeski has been known to make strong snap judgments. Imagine this: as a child prodigy, he was groomed to become one of the country's leading concert pianists. Then, when he was only 14, a whiff of perfume at an after-concert party triggered such a wave of revulsion in him that he instantly abandoned the classical-music world. Instead, he set off for a career in left-field jazz and rock, trying his hand at electronic keyboards.

After years of playing mostly jazz with an avant-garde slant, Medeski eventually rose to the top as one-third of Medeski, Martin and Wood (MM&W), spearheading the trio's idiosyncratic concoction of wild improvisations and hot grooves that incorporates influences from jazz, rock, soul, funk, Latin, African, hip-hop, and countless other styles. The trio's music is instrumental, and with Billy Martin on drums and percussion (see Fig. 1) and Chris Wood on electric- and double bass (see Fig. 2), Medeski's (see Fig. 3) keyboards are its leading voice. It's a sound that's full of character, as can be expected from a player who continues to voice strong opinions.

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FIG. 1: Martin at rehearsal at his vintage Rogers kit. For a bass drum, he uses a Jamaican Nayabinghi drum.

Your Opinions, Please

Ask Medeski any type of question, and you risk having to dodge some vehemently expressed convictions. For example, the mention of digital keyboards triggers an impassioned reaction. “Digital keyboards are toys,” exclaims Medeski, “because of the playing-to-sound interaction. There's touch sensitivity, but it's not like striking a string, like you do with a Clavinet.

“Compare a real Mellotron to a sampled Mellotron: it's a joke! Perhaps if I was in a pop situation, backing up a singer, a digital keyboard or a soft synth would be okay. But I play creative music, and the keyboards are my voice. You can argue all you want, but if you really want to get into the molecules of sound and vibration, a digital keyboard is not doing it — it imitates it. And my life's too short for imitation.”

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FIG. 2: When the band performs or records, Chris Wood plays both upright and electric bass. For rehearsals, he sometimes uses this electrified upright.

Ask him whether he uses MIDI, and again be prepared to duck. “No!” barks Medeski. “I mean, certain sounds are classics: piano, violin, acoustic guitar, electric guitar, B-3 organ, and Clavinet. Those sounds have passed the test of time. But the DX7 sounds like crap now.

“A lot of 1980s records sound dated, and that's due to a large degree to the keyboard sounds. I'm not interested in technology that has nothing to do with music. And today it's like technology for its own sake. I don't have time for that. I'm a musician. I have time for music, not for technology. Technology is good when it helps make music better. And all these digital sounds do not make music better.”

The Vintage Advantage

Medeski's idea of making music better includes surrounding himself with an array of vintage electronic keyboards, effect pedals, and amplifiers. His main instruments are a Hammond B-3 organ, which goes through a Leslie 117; a Clavinet that goes through a wah-wah, a Roland Space Echo, and a 1953 Fender Bassman amp; a Wurlitzer that's sent through a 1957 Fender Tremolux; a Mellotron that goes through a 1968 Fender Pro Silverface; an ARP String Ensemble; a Yamaha CS80 synthesizer; a Melodica, which is another Wurlitzer-type keyboard (“I don't know what the exact name and model number are, but it's somewhere between a Farfisa and an ARP,” says Medeski); and a Steinway piano. His only concession to modern times is the Moog Voyager, which he puts through a 1950s Kay 703 guitar amplifier.

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FIG. 3: Medeski at his acoustic piano. Stacked on top is an ARP SE-IV String Ensemble and a Roland Space Echo.

“I'm more interested in an instrument that has one sound world rather than an instrument that has 1,000 sounds, but each type has its limitations,” explains Medeski. “And each of my keyboards has its own sound world. I think of them as different personalities, and that's why they each have their own amplifier. I spend a lot of time finding amps that work. I really like the Wurlitzer sound that comes from its own speaker, but you can't mic it live. Even in the studio it doesn't have enough balls. But in the studio the Wurlitzer and the Mellotron can sound great direct to tape.”

Shack Attack

MM&W are the proud owners of Shacklyn, a studio located in a large basement in the Dumbo (Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass) neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York. It's awash with vintage items such as a 1970s API desk; an MCI 2-inch, 16-track recorder; and all manner of tube and vintage outboard gear.

“We set Shacklyn up right before we recorded The Dropper [Blue Note, 2000],” Medeski explains. “It used to be our rehearsal and storage space, because we have so much gear. And then, with The Dropper, we decided to set up a space where we could record and feel comfortable and have unlimited time, rather than spend all our money on a commercial studio. So we bought a few things and built a little stage, and even built a control room from plywood. So now we have the API desk, Telefunken mic pres and compressors, and Neve compressors, which are really cool. Most of our gear is from the 1970s, although we have some Avalon things (see Fig. 4) that are a bit more modern, though still aesthetically older.”

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FIG. 4: The control room rack at Shacklyn features outboard gear from Avalon, dbx, Empirical Labs, Furman, Lexicon, Neve,

Until recently, digital items were a virtual no-show at Shacklyn, although Medeski does admit to using a MiniDisc recorder on occasion, purely for convenience's sake. “We rehearse in the studio, and we record a lot of what we do there,” he explains. “It sounds pretty good with the equipment we have. Sometimes we press Record and go, sometimes we bring in a relatively finished piece, and sometimes we improvise from scratch. If it's a matter of trying to find ideas, or ‘seeds’ as we call them, in a mass improvisation, then we record to cassette or MiniDisc. Recording everything to analog [reel-to-reel] tape is just too expensive.”

History Lesson

The band may love old gear, but MM&W are anything but a bunch of old-fogey jazzers stuck in a time warp. All three members had been active in the New York avant-garde scene of the 1980s, and when they convened in 1991, alchemy occurred instantly.

Until recently, they bottled their particular brand of musical magic on analog tape, starting with their self-released 1992 debut album Notes from the Underground (Accurate Jazz, 1992), as well as their breakthrough album Friday Afternoon in the Universe (Gramavision, 1995). The follow-up, Shack Man (Gramavision, 1996), was recorded in Hawaii in a studio called The Shack, which later provided half of the name for their Brooklyn studio. The sound of The Shack's API console inspired the band members to buy their own.

Relentless touring, and collaborations with well-known cutting-edge musicians such as guitarist Vernon Reid and DJ Logic, further heightened the band's profile. For a number of years, DJ Logic was the band's unofficial fourth member, his turntable contributions illustrating their openness to present-day influences. Further evidence of this was their association with hip-hop DJ and producer Scott Harding (Wu-Tang Clan, Kool Keith), who was involved in the making of Combustication (Blue Note, 1998), The Dropper, and Uninvisible (Blue Note, 2002).

Getting Dusted

In 2004, Blue Note released MM&W's End of the World Party (Just in Case). It was cocreated and produced by John King, who is one-half of the Dust Brothers (aka the “Godfathers of Sampling”). The Dust Brothers have built their reputation by working on releases such as The Beastie Boys' Paul's Boutique (Capitol, 1989) and Beck's Odelay (Geffen, 1996).

The clash of King's computer-enhanced pop and hip-hop sensibilities with MM&W's improvised analog approach resulted in pop and soul and Latin influences vying for space with sonic experimentation and quirky, almost hit-parade-like licks. End of the World Party is an ultracool album, as well as a continuation of and radical departure from the band's previous output. One wonders how MM&W got the idea of hiring John King.

“Over the years, we've been producing a lot of our records ourselves,” Medeski explains, “but working with Scotty [Harding] opened our minds. Also, we could make a record once a month. We improvise and create new songs every night we play — at least a third of our set is all-new material and improvised compositions. Fortunately or unfortunately, people record all our live shows and put them on the Web. They may not be the best recordings, but the music is there.

“So the point of making a record is to do something entirely different that uses the studio as the incredible and creative world that it is. It's also a question of ‘what more can we do?’ So we decided to try a full-blown producer on this record. And we love all the records John King has done with the Dust Brothers. We felt it would be interesting to get his pop perspective. The avant-garde side is our forte, but the pop thing isn't really what we do. And his process is exactly the way we approach recording music.”

Hang on a second. Medeski never misses a beat when an opportunity arrives to proudly proclaim how he loves working with real musicians and how MM&W's live-playing approach is its perfect embodiment. (“I'm old school. There's nothing but a bunch of people playing together live.”) Conversely, John King and his Dust Brother partner Mike Simpson wear their nonmusicianship on their sleeves. They started out as computer students and have, over the years, always prided themselves in using cutting-edge digital-sampling equipment to create music through cutting, looping, and pasting material played by others. Surely the Dust Brothers and MM&W inhabit entirely different musical, attitudinal, and technological universes, don't they?

Not so, according to Medeski. “We're a band that composes together, and we like to work on all songs together from the beginning. We start from the bottom up, and we work as a unit to create — improvising and picking out the cherry moments. The approach with End of the World Party was also ‘let's get together and work on some basic tracks, focusing on bass and drums.’ We spent a week at Shacklyn with John, playing and improvising every day, while he brought all this stuff that made him feel comfortable recording: tons of microphones and a Digidesign Pro Tools HD system. Then he would go through it and pick out the sweet spots. He worked amazingly hard at this.”

“Our impression from the first time we spoke to John was that it would be very looped and very much a pop approach. John indeed constructed the album's first two tracks, ‘Anonymous Skulls’ and the title track, from a one-bar loop, and then we'd go back and play to that to create the songs. But after that, he slowly tuned into the way we develop grooves between us and they way we move from point A to point B. We're players, and we have the luxury of replaying things and working on them, and we develop the songs in that way.”

In other words, MM&W can loop or rework their “seeds” live, and they don't need a computer to do that. Although that seems like a considerably different approach than King's, Medeski stressed the common ground. “We aren't coming from fully written songs, but from seeds of ideas that are fleshed out as we go. It's about working in the moment, without preconceived ideas. That's very different from having an idea in your head, writing it down, and then getting players to play it.

“The ease with which you can create your vision with digital equipment can be detrimental, because you can really make things exactly the way you have them in your head — that's rarely going to be as good as what happens when you combine the input from different people. And the Dust Brothers, even as they're using the technology, also approach music from the perspective of, ‘Hey, what you just did is really cool — hang on for a second.’”

Forward, into the Past

With the similarities and differences in approach between John King and MM&W becoming clear, there's still the gear issue to resolve, with King swearing by the latest digital gizmos, such as Pro Tools HD and Ableton Live, while MM&W and their studio remain locked in the 1970s.

Nor is everything in this situation what it seems. Although the Dust Brothers like to take advantage of the advanced editing capabilities in the latest digital gear, from a sonic perspective they are huge fans of vintage analog and tube equipment, which they claim still sounds better than digital does today. (The Brothers' enthusiasm for such gear is evident at their studio in Los Angeles, called The Boat, which sports a 1969 Neve 8028 console once owned by George Martin. (Check out

In addition to the Pro Tools HD system that he rented, King brought his bunch of vintage and tube microphones, and some preamps and other outboard gear, all from his own collection. “The microphones John brought,” remarks Medeski, “made a big difference. Additionally, Pro Tools HD, at 96 kHz, is the first digital recording setup I've encountered that's worth using. It's different than analog, and there's a certain low-end thing that you just don't get with digital, but it's good in other ways. In the past, we recorded a couple of our records to 2-track analog tape using a stereo microphone, and with 96 kHz you can get a similar depth and dimension.”

Judging that digital technology has finally come of age, Woods and Martin have recently acquired laptops to run basic Pro Tools systems. The band's old Mac G3 was subsequently given to Medeski who, in 2005, at age 40, has finally surrendered to the digital era, even going as far as to acquire an email address. Not that he'll be using the G3 for much else, though. “While studying classical music, I've learned to write for all musical instruments,” he explains. “I think what John King does is incredible, but I can write stuff out and get people together and play. I would never say that's a better way of doing things, because I love the way our last few records have come out. It's just different.”

Express Yourself

Medeski's classical-music background is still a major influence. He recalls that the perfume incident was not about classical music as such (“I love it”), but about the pretentiousness that often surrounds it; or as he puts it, “the whole scene, all these rich people in fur coats.” And so, the keyboardist's beginnings on the classical piano continue to drive his keyboard preferences, as well as his wider outlook on music. “The piano is such an expressive instrument,” he says, “I can hit three notes on any of my keyboards, and each will sound different. I need that kind of expressiveness.”

Medeski played John King's Steinway at the latter's private studio in Los Angeles, at the time called The Medina. Medeski and Wood went there after the initial seven-day recording stint at Shacklyn to complete the record. (Martin, meanwhile, was tending to his newborn.) “King had a whole bunch of keyboards,” Medeski comments, “weird little toy things, but also some great old Korg synthesizers. He also has a Yamaha CS70, and I loved his Mini Korg. Plus, he has tons of great guitar pedals. In general, I like using pedals and have the sound coming out of an amplifier. I don't want to play something, and then have someone else decide later on how it's going to sound. I prefer to play it with the sound that will be on the record.”

It's an old-school approach to recording, and just before Medeski again risks sounding like an old fogey, he adds, “Some of the most creative things are being done by DJs and with computers. Some of the best musicians out there are DJs. That's because they're used to conceiving things as a whole. Put a DJ in a band situation, and they're looking for what they can add to make the whole sound better. Whereas a lot of musicians just wank all over what you're doing without really listening to the whole. They just want to come in and play their licks.

“On the other hand, with the John Kings of this world, there's something that happens when you don't have all those preconceived notions that you're taught at music school. It's inspiring to hear them layer and put music together in a fresh way.”

And it's fresh, without a whiff of bad-smelling perfume, Medeski might add.

Paul Tingen is a writer and musician living in Scotland. He is the author of Miles Beyond, The Electric Explorations of Miles Davis, 1967-1991 (Billboard Books, 2001), a book on early weird funk experimentation. For more information,


Dust Brother John King describes what it was like working with MM&W on their recent CD.

“Making End of the World Party (see Fig. B) was very selfish of me,” King says, “because I imposed my taste on it. It reflects my musical taste, combined with their tastes and abilities. It was a bit different than the other projects that I do because there was no vocalist and it's not a pop album. It's like an avant-garde jazz album.

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FIG. B: John King''s production style on End of the World Party featured lots of editing and layering after the basic tracks were recorded.

“I went to MM&W's studio in Brooklyn where they have a fantastic-sounding API board, and brought my whole collection of microphones, including my Neumann U47, U67, U64, and RCA 44 — all the fun mics that I have — and rented a Pro Tools HD system. I set up in their studio, and I would play them music that I like and talk with them about music, and then they would get all fired up and play for a little while, maybe 6 or 20 or 30 minutes. I thought the sound we got at their studio was amazing. These guys are totally sick players, and they're open-minded as well.

“Afterward, I listened to the recording, picked out measures and phrases, looped them, and started to figure out if they would be good to construct a song around. I didn't do much of the editing while I was at Shacklyn, because I wanted to record stuff with them and do the editing back home, where I would condense those 20-minute jams into 3- to 6-minute songs using Pro Tools and Ableton Live.

“Medeski and Wood then came to my place to finish things. We used some of the keyboards from the initial jams, but John and I also did a lot of layering and overdubbing. I have a huge collection of vintage keyboards, so that was fun for John to play with, because he has a ridiculous collection himself.

“The album's opener, ‘Anonymous Skulls,’ is a good example, with a couple of my favorite keyboards in there. The Mini Korg gives a deep synth-bass sound. There's the Mellotron, the B-3, and a Clavinet that we put through all of my crazy vintage distortion pedals. There's also a 1955 Fender Deluxe Blackface amp and my 9-foot Steinway. I also play the Echoplex on that song, and I used Ableton Live for two tracks of ambient loops.”