Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Medeski, John

Keyboardist John Medeski has achieved crossover fame rarely enjoyed by jazz artists as a member of the genre-bending jam band Medeski, Martin, and Wood, and with guitarists John Scofield and Marc Ribot. Medeski is known for his technical command of the piano, as well as the organ, Fender Rhodes, clavinet, melodica and the Mellotron.

John Medeski was born on June 28th, 1965 in Louisville, Kentucky. John’s father was also a pianist, who exposed the boy to jazz from a young age. Medeski began studying the piano at the age of five, beginning with classical lessons. Medeski’s family moved to Fort Lauderdale, Florida while he was still a child. Medeski has cited his early influences as including guitarist Jimi Hendrix and tenor saxophonist Wayne Shorter.

While John was a teenager, he led a fusion band in Florida called Emergency. Another Florida musician, bassist Jaco Pastorius, was so impressed with his skills as a keyboardist that he asked him to join him on tour in Japan. Unfortunately, Medeski’s parents didn’t allow him to go since he was still a minor. After high school, Medeski enrolled at the New England Conservatory in Boston, Massachusetts. His first year of study was strictly classical music, and his teacher that year was pianist Leonard Shur.

While in Boston, Medeski performed with many notable jazz musicians, including drummer Bob Moses and saxophonist Bob Mintzer. During his time there, Medeski was part of the NEC's Third Stream department, which John has credited with challenging him to discover his own sound and explore its possibilities.

Medeski started to play the Hammond B3 electric organ while in Boston, and before long was playing behind blues singer Jelly Belly. Even after forming his own group, Medeski has stayed busy playing with a wide range of artists, including jazz drummer Billy Higgins and groups such as the Jazz Composers Alliance.

After he finished his studies at NEC, Medeski moved to New York City in 1990. He formed Medeski, Martin, and Wood in 1991 with drummer Billy Martin and bassist Chris Wood. Medeski and Wood had met and played previously while on tour in Israel with drummer Bob Moses. Bob Moses had also previously taught drummer Billy Martin.

The group’s first performances were at the New York City club the Village Gate located on the corner of Thompson and Bleecker streets in Greenwich Village. MMW released their first album Notes From the Underground in January of 1992. The album was very experimental, and offers hints of where the band would go with their future releases. The album contained the song “United.”

The trio soon began to develop a cult following amongst college and jam band fans, in large part thanks to the band’s unrelenting touring schedule. The band released their second album for Gramavision Records in 1993, It’s A Jungle In Here. This release showed the group focusing on more orchestrations and groove-based material, such as their mashup of “Bemsha Swing/Lively Up Your Self “Bemsha Swing/Lively Up Your Self.”

In 1994, Medeski toured jazz/experimental musician John Zorn’s group Masada, which also included guitarist Marc Ribot and Billy Martin on drums.

MMW’s third album Friday Afternoon In the Universe featured extended jams and more experimental compositions as it featured Danny Blume on guitar and Carl Green on flute. This album featured head-bopping grooves on songs like “Chubb Sub,” and extended piano and organ solos by Medeski on “Last Chance To Dance Trance (Perhaps).” Also featured is the song“The Lover.”

In 1996, the group released the album Shack-man, which brought the group its greatest commercial success to that date. The album featured Medeski on multiple keyboards and highlighted his strengths on the Hammond B3, which are reminiscent of Jimmy Smith and Lonnie Smith at times. This album is deeply rooted in hip-hop grooves as heard on such songs as “Dracula” and “Jelly Belly,” named for the blues singer Medeski played with in Boston. That same year the group toured as part of the jam-band oriented Horizons Of Rock Developing Everywhere (H.O.R.D.E.) circuit, which further exposed the band to a wider listening audience.

In 1998, MMW combined forces with jazz guitarist John Scofield for his 1998 Verve release A Go Go, which featured strong funk compositions and an unwavering dedication to 1960s soul jazz. The album further increased MMW’s presence in the musical mainstream. Songs including “Chank” display the group’s ability to react to and complement the sounds and nuances of Scofield’s guitar. On “Hottentot,” Scofield and Medeski gel well with Scofield’s climactic guitar solo over the Medeski’s keyboard work.

Also in 1998, MMW released their fourth studio album, Combustication. This was the group’s first release for the revamped Blue Note Records. This album featured the group in their typical format with Medeski handing most of the solo work over Chris Wood’s subtle but effective bass lines and Billy Martin’s funk, hip-hop drum beats. The song“ Sugar Craft” features MMW along with DJ Logic who utilized turntable scratches behind the group to create an interesting and more enhanced sound. MMW continued to tour through the late 1990s and appeared at many different jazz and music festivals throughout the United States and the world.

In 2000, MMW released Tonic, which captured their March 1999 set at the Tonic club in Manhattan. This album featured a stripped-down, back to basic approach for the band as Medeski played only piano. The band can be heard in their magic on the Bud Powell tune “Buster Rides Again.”

In addition to his work with the trio, Medeski played on the Dirty Dozen Brass Band’s 1999 release Buckjump, and in 2000 formed a group called the Word with pedal-steel guitar virtuoso Robert Randolph.

MMW released their second album for Blue Note, Last Chance to Dance Trance (Perhaps), which was a greatest hits compilation from their previous releases for Gramavision. Also in 2000, Blue Note released the group’s album The Dropper on October 24th. It featured such songs that include the Brazilian-tinged “Partido Alto.” In 2002, the group released Uninvisible for the Blue Note label. It featured more experimental compositions than their previous two releases and this can be heard in “Retirement Song.”

In 2004, MMW released End of the World Party (Just In Case) for Blue Note, which appeared to be an effort by the band to capitalize on their crossover appeal. It featured songs such as “Anonymous Skulls” and “Bloody Oil,” and was produced by the hip-hop production duo The Dust Brothers. In 2006, MMW combined forces with John Scofield again to release their second album Out Louder. Also that year, John Medeski premiered his group the Itch, which featured Medeski on keyboards, Eric Krasno on guitar, and Adam Deitch on drums, at the All Good Music Festival in Masontown, West Virginia.

In 2008, MMW released a children’s album called Let’s Go Everywhere, which was supported by the band performing at venues such as Borders bookstores. Medeski continues to perform with artists beyond the trio, and solo piano concerts where he interprets songs that range in style from classical to jazz. He lives in Woodstock, New York.

Select Discography

With Medeski, Martin and Wood

Notes From the Underground (Gramavision, 1992)

It’s A Jungle In Here (Gramavision, 1994)

Friday Afternoon In the Universe (Gramavision, 1995)

Shack-man (Gramavision, 1996)

Combustication (Blue Note, 1998)

Tonic (Blue Note, 2000)

The Dropper (Blue Note, 2000)

Uninvisible (Blue Note, 2002)

End of the World Party (Just In Case) (Blue Note, 2004)

With John Scofield

A Go Go (Verve, 1998)

Out Louder (Indirecto, 2006)

Contributor: Jared Pauley