My adoration for John Medeski and his group, Medeski, Martin & Wood, goes way back to the summer of 2001, between my high school graduation and first year of college. We lived two hours north of New York City. Our environs were idyllic, nestled in the Hudson River Valley and surrounded by the forests of the Catskills. About a mile from us was a place called Greig Farm, a pick-your-own-produce place. They had a handful of fields and a couple cute little shops on the swath of a half-dozen acres, and that summer, Greig Farm allowed something called Gathering of the Vibes, a camping-style, multi-day music festival, to take place on their grounds. The Gathering still happens, in a seemingly endless run of annual gatherings, but a little further up north near Albany.
I was 18, a doe-eyed teen who hadn’t heard of MMW until I walked right up to the lip of the stage—it had been raining, 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 and virtuoso control of their instruments. They didn’t use vocals or lyrics and did all of their mesmerizing with a keyboard, a standup or electric bass and a drum kit. I purchased Shack-Man, their 1996 release brimming with classics like “Bubblehouse” and “Night Marchers,” as soon as their set was over. I’d brought a boombox (and batteries) to the campgrounds for the weekend and 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, as the rain came down, pledging allegiance to MMW.
Then, in college, I was randomly assigned into a room of four freshmen, three of whom were the biggest weedheads I’d ever met. The Hun School grad—we’ll call him Bob—was the ringleader. His obsession with Marley, Steel Pulse and Peter Tosh extended to his insatiable thirst for getting high. He came home one day with a six-foot acrylic bong, and 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. In the way that Shack-Man had so much funk and bounce, and could potentially win arguments as a straight-up party LP, Combustication was an ideal stoner album. Then in 2000, they put out their acid jazz record, The Dropper (subtle, right?), which was even more perplexingly hypnotic than Combustication. After that, MMW stopped putting out truly inspired LPs, 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 ever. They’ve put out some collections and live and acoustic-type compilations since, but nothing like those gems.
For Wednesday’s “An Evening with John Medeski,” he’s bringing only a piano to dazzle the downstairs room at World Cafe Live, where he’ll simply revel in his wide-ranging, classically trained skill set. So what if there’s no moogs, synths or Wurlitzers. Oh, the places he’ll go—and take us.
Wed., May 1, 8pm. $20-$30. World Cafe Live, 3025 Walnut St. 215.222.1400. philly.worldcafelive.com
PW's Music Issue 2014