My impulse was to write the last black play ever for myself. I really believed if I put it all into one play, people would leave me alone.
One of the joys of music is the art of the band whose whole transcends the sum of its parts; those ensembles that collectively make a sound greater than that of any of its individual members. The Modern Jazz Quartet, Funkadelic, The Residents, The Grateful Dead, and Bad Brains are all bands whose power comes from the forging of separate identities into a complete Wall of Sound. The trio Medeski, Martin & Wood is another in that lineage that defies genre. John Medeski on analog keyboards, Billy Martin on percussion and drums, and Chris Wood on acoustic bass are wonderful improvisers who together make a sound that’s fun, funky, full of life—darkness and light co-joined. Jazz has an affair with Funk and the result is an organically beautiful love-child that has its mother’s full sensual mouth, but its father’s haunting eyes.
Vernon Reid Are all of you lifetime musicians? What brought you to music in the beginning? Let’s start with Chris.
Chris Wood My dad, although he’s a scientist, is always listening to music.
John Medeski Didn’t he play with Joan Baez?
CW In college he played with Joan Baez. He’s a musician at heart, so when I got into music he was totally supportive.
VR You play upright bass. The band is a real mixture. It has a very organic feeling, but there are electric instruments utilized, like the clavinet, which do not occur in nature.
JM Not the most in tune clavinet.
VR That’s part of its charm.
CW And not the most in tune bass.
VR The classic organ trios are drums, guitar, and a hyperactive organist. Your band is not really an organ trio, not in the classic sense, but it’s a very interesting choice.
JM It’s because of the piano. I do a lot of regular organ style, kick bass, whatever, but it’s great to be freed up and use a Wurlitzer. It’s cool, it’s different.
VR How did you start playing piano, and eventually organ and keyboard?
JM My dad had me playing before I could talk, playing show tunes. And then I started taking lessons when I was five, classical piano, and when I was 11 or 12 I got into jazz. I did a whole variety of stuff: theatre, dance companies, classical, chamber music.
VR Who is your favorite classical composer?
JM My favorite to listen to is Charles Ives or Bach. And my favorite to play is Beethoven.
VR There’s something very orderly about Bach. I love the really sacred pieces, it’s all incredibly mathematical, the order is pure. Happy-go-lucky fifths.
JM So anyway I went to the New England Conservatory in Boston, and eventually started playing in a blues band for awhile. This guy, Mr. Jelly Belly from Newark, who’s now dead, turned me on to so much music. I played blues with him seven nights a week, playing organ. It was a blast. That’s where I learned about the blues.
VR It’s a funny thing about the blues though—it’s incredibly, deceptively simple. You either have that feeling or you don’t.
JM It’s the only new form of music, in the way that a sonata or a scherzo is a form, the blues is the only universal form that’s come around this century. Many people think, mistakenly, that they can reduce it to the one-four-five pattern, or to a pentatonic approach, and that’s so removed from the actual experience. It’s like the difference between organized religion and spirituality. My favorite blues is not the typical 12 bar blues which has become the standard in the jazz world, but the older more country blues where it’s coming out of the lyrics. And the melody and the form are a result of that.
VR But still at the bottom of it is a certain kind of feeling it has to spring from. It works or it doesn’t work, according to the feeling you put into it. It doesn’t have to live there or stay there, but it has to spring from there. And pay reverence to it, or even irreverence to it; but it has to acknowledge what that is. Billy, where did you grow up?
Billy Martin Washington Heights, Manhattan, and then high school in New Jersey. The musical influence basically came from my mom, she had me tap dancing when I was really young.
VR You’re a hoofer?
BM Well, I was. I love to dance, but not that style. My mom was a Rockette.
VR A Rockette! Of course you realize this is an entirely different interview now … How did your father meet your mother?
BM My father was a violinist in the orchestra.
VR So it begs the question, where was he sitting in the orchestra when your mother was kicking? (I’ll let the mind wander and spin.)
BM My mom had the jazzier, Broadway, Ellington kind of music happening.
VR Now tell me, in approach you’re a total percussionist. How did you go from being a trap drummer into the world of percussion?
BM I fell on my face. I was trying to play a Latin rhythm on the drum set and it was the most humiliating experience. It was in high school, and I had to play a Latin beat, the usual pseudo-Latin rhythm, kind of jazz style.
VR That should be banished.
BM Yeah, except for the real jazz cats who incorporate it into their own style, which is what I’m trying to do now. So I was struggling, trying to play a samba with a band one night, and I didn’t know the difference between a samba and a mambo. I was totally ignorant, I had only discovered Brazilian music through samba classes at the Drummers Collective in New York.
VR So the tradition of this band is partly a personal commitment to a groove. It’s why bands like the Grateful Dead can’t really be imitated, or the Art Ensemble or Funkadelic—now, those are three wildly different groups. The idea is that music is a way of seeing the world, music is a way of life. That’s an impression I get from you all. At what point in your playing together did it start to evolve into what it is now?
CW After we did our first recording. Before that we just did some gigs at the Village Gate. We ended up liking our first recording so much that we made up CDs ourselves.
BM We went out on a limb; jumped in a van and started touring the country, hanging out with each other. It’s like a family thing. It was instant. We knew that we related to each other and got along.
VR How do you work out disputes?
BM We’re very nice to each other. There are disputes …
JM They’re like family fights.
BM Not like my family. But yeah, we love each other so much that we’re willing to give up a little to make it work.
JM There’s this collective spirit. I like what comes out of us butting and arguing, coming up with a tune. The end result is better than what any of us could have come up with on our own, and more unique.
VR It’s very interesting to hear straight men openly speak about loving one another. Because I feel, honestly, that what happens in the life of a contemporary musician, makes it very hard to avoid certain kinds of male issues—issues of the ego, machismo—a lot of it is family related. I always worried when I was in a band, and a band leader wanted the band to be like a family. It’s a very touchy thing, because I have a real family. But as someone once said, you don’t choose your family but you can choose your friends. And who you choose to love is one of the most important choices you can make in your life. So it’s interesting that you speak of this openly and are willing to roll this whole thing out.
JM It’s not just about the music, it’s about growing as a human being and our goals, our own spiritual and personal evolution. The ego shit is something I want to get rid of as much as possible, except where it’s a benefit. I think we all do. It can become a block to progress. And when you’re dealing with being in a group of improvisers, who in general are strong headed, individualistic musicians with style, everybody’s got their own ideas. We have those kinds of conflicts. But we’re not afraid to talk about our communication problems. I’ve been in bands where it’s been that real superficial kind of “Hey, how ya doin’, everything’s cool.” Everyone keeps their distance. With us there’s no distance. We know each other so well that it could be boring. But it never is.
VR You actually have a place in Hawaii?
CW Yeah, we have a shack. It’s in the jungle; there are no power lines, no water lines. It’s all solar-powered, that’s how we play music there, solar power.
BM Very minimal, just enough to play music you know. All our lights are candles.
CW There’re actually a couple of little, tiny segments on Friday Afternoon in the Universe that are from the shack.
VR ”Last Chance to Dance Trance”, the fourth track, is very melodramatic. It evokes a 1950s film-noirish feeling.
JM Yeah, somewhere between that and a skating rink is exactly what we’re going for.
VR Your music would be great for soundtrack. Have you ever done or been approached for soundtracks?
JM I’ve done really low scale things, playing for silent movies.
VR Never as a group?
CW No. It’s actually something we’d like to do.
VR Well, there’s something very intimate about what you do. The music mutates. When you write together, do you play until themes emerge?
JM Exactly. We just work it out, we work it out from the bowels. And then a theme will come up and that might change what the mood should be. We find it and then we create the form after that.
VR Your music is definitely related to Miles Davis, Dudley Soft Machine, Booker T. and the MG’s … But there are also references to house music. I was listening to some Thelonius Monk this morning, to “I Mean You,” which is one of the funkiest …
BM Thelonius in general, man. Funky.
VR Yeah, exactly. A funky rhythm can’t be only a head thing, the interpretation has to be absolutely appropriate, so you can actually feel it.
JM We talked about how it would be fun to do an all Monk album, because Monk’s music is so rhythmic, just the shape of the melodies; it’s so natural.
VR There’s something about Monk that is so incredibly beyond his time.
JM Every tune is its own world.
VR You can listen to Monk’s music and literally feel the other musicians being like, “What the hell?” Grooving to the fact that this cat was so odd. His total language and approach don’t refer to other things. It is itself. I mentioned the references to house music and also hip hop because your music is really funky. How did it become funky, by the way?
BM When I started to listen to funk music I was in high school. As soon as Grand Master Flash put out that record, it was like somebody hit me over the head with a sledgehammer. I mean, besides listening to Hendrix and James Brown and Sly Stone. There was something about, Wow, without the drummer this music isn’t happening. The rappers have the rhythm down. If I’m going to play, I better be able to play a rhythm, like a groove to make people dance, or what’s the point? Merging that way of playing with John and Chris’s style was the only way I could approach it. I wasn’t a jazz drummer.
CW I developed naturally towards that, too. When we started playing grooves is when I felt I was playing most honestly. A rhythm is the basis of our approach to music; everything else is just what you get.
VR People’s choices and how they view things is very interesting to me. What makes one thing monotonous and what makes another thing a trance? What is a line? When is something simplistic and when is something minimalist? That’s what I love about the music that you’re doing: I can relate to it myself as a composer. I like music that is melodically easy to get, something that’s really simple but not simplistic, a theme that says what it needs to say and doesn’t say less and doesn’t say more.
JM A deeper complexity comes out of the simple approach. You take a rhythm and break it down into its simplest parts, then you can get complicated over it and it still feels good. Same with the melody. When I hear Coltrane do it—all the greatest horn players—they’re targeting certain notes that are part of the simple form melodically, and the notes are made more complex by embellishing what’s around them. I love that.
BM That’s what I learned when I discovered real Brazilian music and African music: everything was based on something simpler. That’s where it all comes from, that certain source.
JM Keep the internal simple and let the external have some variation.
VR I notice in your Brazilian rhythm that you tend to go more towards the Bloco-Afro rhythms. This rhythm is incredibly intoxicating, really unexpected. But Chris, I hear a vocal quality in your harmonics. The closest thing I can think of is Fred Hopkins, his vocal overtones sing. I mean it’s your own thing.
CW No no, when I first heard Fred Hopkins I was amazed. I came up with these things as we started playing and developing as a group. And then I heard Fred Hopkins and it was as if I just copied everything he did. I was like, “Damn.”
VR It’s all been done.
BM It’s all been done, I know, but Chris’s bowing things are so awesome, organic, totally vocal, totally rhythmic.
VR And the thing about the organ is it’s such a spiritual instrument because of that droning quality. I’ve always found it fascinating how an instrument can be associated with the church, but also be associated with, you know, honky tonks. Your title cut, “Friday Afternoon in the Universe,” is darkly reverential. It reminds me of a cathedral in the jungle that’s been overtaken by the forest.
BM Wow, that’s the best description.
VR That’s what I felt. There’s been a coup d’étât, and the stained glass windows have been shot through and the vines are coming back. And those remnants are what that song sounds like.
JM That makes total sense. We were talking about Bach, who played church organ—he gets into the more abstract complexities of spirituality in his music, and the organ is a great instrument for that.
VR When music approaches the spiritual it’s always the question for me: Are we trying to talk about God and the mind of man, or man and the mind of God? Because the music approaches the ineffable, that which is unnameable, that which is so holy that it can’t be spoken about. There are moments in the music which are like … great sex. There’s a moment when you’re outside of yourself and you’re connected to this person. If it’s happening for the right reasons, there’s almost a moment of transcendence. It’s like when you see something in art. I went to the Avedon show and he is a master. Have you ever seen his photograph of the beekeeper? The bees are completely covering his body. It sucks the breath out of your chest. Speaking as an improvisor myself, it’s that moment where you can do no wrong. Those moments are really special when they’re in public.
CW To completely lose yourself in public is a bigger challenge, but man, when that happens …
VR Some of your melodies and rhythms are very accessible … Your audience really comes to have a good listen. How do you balance out that will to improvise, to go wherever it’s going to go—minor seconds, tri tones, whatever, which to the untrained ear is like whoa, what’s that—and more populist material?
JM The simple melodies come out after the explorations. You superimpose the melody in the jam and find some stuff, maybe get more abstract, and then somewhere out of that swamp comes something really accessible, like a flower. Just a simple, beautiful melody.
JM The most common thing: dig for a while.
CW Dig for a while through the sludge and …
VR The muck and the mire. Music can be so incredibly serious. My greatest enemy is to become jaded. To let that actually poison the process. You have to be able to be dumbfounded, to be a bit more like a child, and let go of control. If shit happens, what do you do? You can topple from it or you can …
JM This issue is really the center of my approach. It’s about being in the moment. You just keep going, you always keep growing, and you don’t regret anything.
VR Okay, now we can talk about girls. Are you able to balance your personal lives with this thing?
JM It’s like anything, hard times and good times.
BM I feel more balanced with my personal life because this is part of my personal life. When I travel, I’m with very close friends. As far as relationships go, a lover or something, that’s hard. We’re really like gypsies, trying to come to terms with what the gypsy life is like.
CW At this point I feel more at home on the road in our camper than I feel anywhere else. We bring all our stuff, our clothes and our books, we cook for ourselves, we get to decide where we’re going to go, what we want to check out.
VR The way you are approaching music is that it is a way of life.
VR It’s close to the African way of dealing with music. Music is not entertainment for a soundtrack to some life-style scene; it’s a way of seeing the world, and a way of living.
CW That’s the pay-off, that’s our reward.
VR In the second song were you hitting the strings with sticks? Do you ever do that?
VR Is that a Burundi style you’re playing?
BM Yeah. It’s great that you mention it: that was so deep. I saw the Drummers of Burundi in Amsterdam, my heart was going crazy, I was crying and I didn’t know why.
VR Because it’s all passing. When your vision is in the so-called primitive, which is actually primal, you’re looking at a way of the world, and it’s passing. And, no one really wants to admit it, but it’s because everyone is wired up. Years ago I was in Thailand, and we’re going up river past these huts, they’re completely quiet, and this one hut had a glow in the window, and that glow must have been the TV set.
JM I was just in Dominica, one of the least developed islands in the Caribbean. Looking at the banana plantations and coconuts growing round, walking past somebody’s shack, then seeing, through the window, everybody sitting around this huge 28-inch television. It’s scary!
VR But it is fascinating and sad at the same time. Watching entropy take hold, watching systems run down, but you realize we’re all part of this process. America is not dealing with entropy very well. And, there’s a desperate kind of squabbling and falling out, a who do we denounce; it’s really fascinating.
JM There’s one thing that we need to say: we’re looking for an alternative way of life that’s passing. That gypsy lifestyle and that spirit which is so powerful. There’s a way of aligning that spirit in a modern way, a way of absorbing spirit into our lives. We want to be part of that spirit. It’s expiring in so many places. It’s sad. We don’t want to lose it.
VR You could relate that sadness to childhood. This is an insight that I’ve gained very recently: in looking at our childhood, think about it as a hostage situation. You’re behind enemy lines: you have no control, no choice, no alternatives, and you begin to identify with your captors because your survival depends on them; if your captors are not happy, well, you don’t eat or you get beaten. If you think about it that way, so many of the veils come away, and then you realize your parents were captives at one time, too. It’s real important, in order to reclaim, not innocence, but a sense of your real self. We’re all responsible—facing that is part of the social process. I find that artists are really doing the work in this area, doing something extraordinary.
JM It’s what we’re trying to do. For us, our musical growth and our personal growth share the same obstacles. We’re trying to connect on a deeper level, lift those veils of complexity to find something primal.
CW We’re just trying to keep it simple.
My impulse was to write the last black play ever for myself. I really believed if I put it all into one play, people would leave me alone.