Mind if I overshare for a moment?
My adoration for John Medeski and his group, Medeski, Martin & Wood (MMW), goes way back to the summer between my graduation from high school and my first year of college. I graduated from Red Hook Central High School in Red Hook, NY, two hours north of New York City, in the summer of 2001. Our environs were idyllic; nestled in the Hudson River Valley and surrounded by the forests of the Catskills, we experienced four distinct seasons and had middle-sized town conveniences a drive away. We had a mall, theaters, hikes nearby and lush yards behind friends’ houses. About a mile from my house was a place called Grieg Farm, a pick-your-own farm where you drive in, get a basket or bushel, and it gets weighed and you pay on your way out. They had a handful of fields and a couple cute little shops on the swath of a half-dozen acres. And the summer I graduated from high school, Grieg Farm allowed something called Gathering of the Vibes to take place on their grounds. It was to be a camping-style multi-day music festival, one that would emulate/inspire Bonnaroo, much larger in its scope and ambition. The Gathering still happens, in a seemingly endless run of annual gatherings, but a little further up north near Albany.
In those few days, I smoked a lot of weed. I was 18, and the world was in front of me as a recent high school graduate and impending college-matriculating, doe-eyed teenager. I hadn’t heard of MMW until I walked right up to the lip of the stage (it had been raining, it was muddy, and lots of folks retreated to their tents or to their nearby homes) and watched, enraptured, as these three dudes stunned me with grooves, improvisation, tempo changes, virtuoso control of their instruments, and all the while, they didn’t use vocals or lyrics. They did all of their mesmerizing with a keyboard, a standup bass or electric bass and a drum kit. I bought Shack-Man, their 1996 release with classics like “Bubblehouse” and “Night Marchers,” as soon as their set was over. I’d brought a boombox to the campgrounds for the weekend, along with eight fat D batteries, and I popped it in as soon as I got back to my tent. I was floored. It was one of the most genuine experiences of getting wowed by a band, live, that you’d never heard before, then immediately wanting to listen to everything they’d ever recorded. I listened, stoned, in my tent as the rain came down, with the volume low, and vowed to adore this band for as long as I could.
Then, in college, I was randomly assigned into a room of four freshmen, along with three of the biggest stoners I’d ever met in my life. I went to a lovely, cushy liberal arts college, not really knowing how the super-upper class lived and how prep school kids had been experimenting with way harder drugs than shit weed and Coors Light for years before they enrolled at a residential college. The Hun School grad, we’ll call him Bob, was the ringleader. His obsession with Marley and reggae like Steel Pulse and Peter Tosh extended to his insatiable thirst for being stoned. He came home one day with a six-foot acrylic bong. We listened to MMW’s Combustication (1998) on repeat. It’s a really trippy experimental jazz record that deftly employs some quirky samples, and it gets downright weird. It is IDEAL stoner music. In the way that Shack-Man had so much funk and bounce, and could potentially win arguments as a straight-up party LP (encompassing all drug abuse, but focusing primarily on alcohol), Combustication was a weed record, and then in 2000, they put out an acid record. The Dropper (subtle, right?) was insane. This was their acid jazz record, and it was even more perplexingly hypnotic than Combustication. We didn’t do acid to the tone of The Dropper, but the endless weed Bob bought from the sales of his Adderall prescription did not get smoked without a soundtrack.
Then I took my brother and his best friend to see MMW open for String Cheese Incident at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute’s field house. And it sucked. Not for MMW’s set, but for SCI’s—and I was hurt. Why would MMW identify with, play and open for such a mediocre band? After The Dropper, they stopped putting out truly inspired albums, even though 2002’s Uninvisible wasn’t a throwaway; it just seemed like the trio of Shack-Man, Combustication and The Dropper were the most stunning trio of experimental jazz records I could possibly dream up. They’ve put out some collections and live and acoustic-type compilations since, but MMW aren’t coming to Philadelphia next week. John Medeski is. And he’s bringing only a piano.
On Wednesday, May 1st, Medeski will dazzle the downstairs room at World Cafe Live, and it won’t be much like a MMW show at all. This is an opportunity for Medeski to simply play with his skill set. He’s well-steeped in jazz, pop, funk and classically-trained; there’s so many directions in which he’ll let himself go. It seems like it’s a piano-oriented show, and that might mean no moogs, synths or Wurlitzers. It’d be cool if they were there, too, but this set, especially for jazz heads, should be a memorable one.