John Medeski Explores a Different Time at the Stone this February
Pianist John Medeski has an upcoming residency at the Stone from Feb 18 through 23 with sets at 8 and 10 PM featuring a diverse cast of characters, mostly a series of trio performances. While it’s a safe assumption that some of those sets will to some extent reprise the kind of grooves he made a name for himself with in Medeski Martin & Wood, recent years have seen Medeski play with a depth that transcends anything he ever did with MMW. In other words, Medeski is at the absolute peak of his career right now as both a composer and performer. His latest album A Different Time, the first release on the recently revived OKeh label, is a highly improvised solo piano quasi-suite that draws on influences as diverse as noir piano legend Ran Blake, Erik Satie, Ravel and the early Modernists as well as later 20th century minimalism.
The backstory is interesting: Medeski thought he had the album in the can until producer Henry Hirsch encouraged Medeski to try his studio’s 1924 Gaveau piano, built in a nineteenth century style that allows (and in fact requires) more nuance than the Steinway model that was being used to track the album. A little messing around turned out to be a revelation, so Medeski ended up re-cutting the tracks on the Gaveau, in the process adding a lot of unplanned material.
The result is soulful and frequently troubled music. Medeski plays these vignettes with a pensive, uneasy and utterly unpredictable rubato – he likes to pedal the lows and ornament his lingering, brooding themes with rippling upper-register filigrees and clusters of grace notes, moving upward or downward with the flick of a wrist. The album’s opening title track of sorts moves from a resonant rainy-day atmosphere through the hint of an anthem, a restart at the bottom of the scale, lingering Satie-esque minimalism, and then tumbling/tinkling motives that wouldn’t be out of place in the Federico Mompou repertoire
Medeski teases the listener as the cinematic, neoromantic prelude I’m Falling slowly morphs into a fullscale ballad. He adds clever palindrome effects to a quirky reinterpretation of the spiritual His Eye Is on the Sparrow, then offers a homage to Blake – with whom Medeski studied at New England Conservatory – via a careful march that defiantly resists any resolution even as it hints at the blues. Graveyard Fields works suspenseful allusions to Asian melody and a moody waltz, while Luz Marina, an elegy for an orphan girl, references both the blues and a Satie Gymnopedie, coalescing with a Brad Mehldau-like vividness.
Medeski follows the gospel-tinged miniature Waiting at the Gate with Lacrima, whose morose insistence matches its spaciousness, again echoing Blake at his most moody and pensive. The album ends with an ironically elegaic, resonant, allusively bluesy remake of Otis, a track from MMW’s debut album. Is this jazz improvisation? Definitely. Classical music? Why not? And it testifies powerfully to the kind of literally transcendent results you can get when you defamiliarize and throw yourself into an unexpected situation.
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