By: Ray Chelstowski
I first got hip to John Medeski with the 1996 Medeski Martin Wood release Shack-man. Since then it’s been a real funk-infused thrill ride to follow him on his musical journey. In a field of remarkable keyboardists John stands tall for his sense of daring and commitment to authenticity. His collaborations are endless. To read through them is dizzying. Better yet the sonic ground they cover will forever prevent John from being easily labeled. But there is a “Medeski effect” and those searching for it find his contributions to their music to be completely transformative. Most come back for more!
His most recent project is no exception. To help celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the John Lennon song “Imagine,” Medeski partnered with Jeff "Firewalker" Schmidt under their Saint Disruption band hood to create an epic interpretation of this iconic song. The final cut is poignant, timely, and inherently cinematic. The project features slide guitar work by Grammy winning vocalist, songwriter, guitar legend, and Gov’t Mule front man Warren Haynes, marking the first time that Haynes has recorded with his nephew Austn Haynes, cofounder of Asheville-based hip-hop quartet Free Radio. Also featured on the track are vocalists—Datrian Johnson and Grammy winning artist Debrissa McKinney—both of whom also work with Austn in Free Radio. Saint Disruption collaborates with musicians and artists to create work that supports positive change in the world, putting a spotlight on the rich artistic community of Asheville, NC - its creative hub.
This “re-imagination” couldn’t come at a more appropriate time for a song has always found a way to a carry the world through times of extreme grief. The Saint Disruption version expands upon that by ending the track with a soaring vision of hope.
New Funk Projekt had the opportunity to catch up with Medeski and learn more about the project, what the future may hold for Medeski Martin & Wood, and what’s next for this incredibly prolific artist.
Goldmine: Saint Disruption was founded with the intent to use music to effect social change. But the focus has been on original compositions. How did you decide to do a cover?
John Medeski: I was initially kind of skeptical about the project. This was really Jeff Schmidt’s idea to cover this tune. In general, I very purposely stopped playing in cover bands a long time ago. Now, when I’m playing other people’s music it’s usually with an original member of the band. Or, it’s something like The Last Waltz project that I have been doing for the last thirty five years. With any band that I’ve been in, when we do someone else’s tune is important to me that we are saying something with it. Or that you are saying something of your own through it. This message was just really important to me.
I’ve seen “Imagine” butchered so many times. But when we got in to it everything instantly went in the direction that you see now. It is a beautiful song and the lyrics are just timeless.
GM: Did you arrive to the project with a vision already in place for where this interpretation would go?
JM: I guess that’s why it worked so well. We didn’t have an arrangement in mind when we started. Each part just sort of evolved as it went. Technically what ended up happening was that the way Datrian and Debrissa sang the melody gave this a much darker feel. It was a more minor situation and that put it in a different key. The original was in the key of C and this ended up being in the key of A, which is the relative minor of C. So I was actually able to play the original chord in the original key from the original song. That gives everything this darker thing but it’s still related. When I first spoke to Warren (Haynes) to see if he was open to playing a solo on the track he told me that ever since he was a kid he has loved the piano part in the song. So I just took the original chords and the same notes from the chromatic and displaced them in octaves. That’s what the piano part is. It’s the original, displaced. And that felt good to me, to take original elements from the song and find a new way to play them.
GM: Warren Haynes’ contributions seem to extend well beyond his ride out solo. He adds texture throughout the song.
JM: Well that was sort of the idea. As we were creating his solo spot we went to a more optimistic tonality. Initially I thought he would just do a solo and if it needed to be longer or shorter we would make the necessary adjustments. Instead he came in and really created a beautiful part.
GM: The original version had a run time of just over three minutes. Yours sits at six minutes. Did you ever think about what was the appropriate amount of time was to add to this classic?
JM: No I thought about that only because of radio. To me the song builds and moves through very naturally. And then you have to ask yourself what part you would take out. The answer is none of them because they are all key to the arc of the song. Every aspect of it came together on its own very naturally. I consider that a good sign (laughs)
GM: You have participated in so many collaborations. How do you know if something is worth pursuing?
JM: There has to be a musical chemistry. It’s not just about getting great musicians together and assuming it’s going to be great because everyone is so talented. Every project that I really get into has that thing where the sum is great than the parts, and where things happen that wouldn’t happen if this group of people hadn’t gotten together. And they have to be calling me for me because there are plenty of other keyboard players out there that can just do the more generic type of thing, and do it better than me. It’s kind of like when George Porter and Zig Modeliste (both of The Meters) asked me to come play the music I’ve loved my whole life with them. It’s like school for me. How am I going to say no to that? The same goes for (John) Scofield. How am I going to say “No”?
GM: Is there any chance we could see a Medeski Martin Wood reunion sometime soon?
JM: Well we took a year off and it’s turned into several now. I think what kept us going for so long is that we all kept doing other things as individuals which helped us keep feeding the band. When we first got together no one expected it to last thirty five years. We always thought that when we’re done we’re done. When it’s no longer fun to play we’ll end it, and that never happened. But a few years back we made a record and it was filmed for a little movie that was about the process. We still need to mix that record and it will all come out, with the film within the year.
GM: For an artist who has always been so prolific we have to ask, what’s next?
JM: Well I just released something through John Zorn’s label Tzadik called Crawl Space. It’s a solo electronic keyboard record, which I’ve never done. It’s just me on a forty-minute, crazy sonic exploration. I’m really happy with. I also have a duo with this really great coronet player named Kirk Knuffke. We just finished mixing the record and it’s all Sun Ra stuff. A while back there was someone who was offering (for a short period) to go to the Library of Congress and photo copy all of the Sun Ra scores that are there. So years ago I ordered them. Kirk and I went through the scores and picked the ones we liked and found things that never got recorded. We dug deep into these arrangements and used some of these, ones I had never heard before. We added some originals too. It’ll be coming out later this year. Look for some Mad Skillet live dates as well!