FEATURE: John Medeski's Mad Skillet
John Medeski is a conduit between the cosmos and a keyboard, and he has traversed a vibrant musical landscape since his first gig as a jazz sideman in the mid-1980s. Contributing to nearly 100 albums in his career, Medeski is best known for his 30 years and 20 albums with the jam band-scene-embraced avant-garde jazz trio Medeski, Martin, and Wood.
He can pull Thelonious Monk out of the strings of a Steinway. And he can summon the funk out of a Hammond-B3. And with his new project, Mad Skillet, he has pulled the soul of New Orleans straight from the New Orleans Jazz Fest late-night scene.
The late-night scene during the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival is a carnival of creativity. And musicians that generally don't get a chance to play together are given the freedom to let loose during "one-off" gigs. Once these musicians return to their full-time bands, what happened on the streets of New Orleans is usually left there. Not for the members of John Medeski's Mad Skillet (John Medeski - keys, Will Bernard - guitar, Kirk Joseph - Sousaphone, Terence Higgins - drums). These musicians were compelled to return to New Orleans after Jazz Fest to record a genuinely spectacular 9-track album. And it harnesses the spirit of the improvisational late-nights that initially brought these musicians together. (BUY ALBUM HERE)
According to Medeski, "Mad Skillet is an organism that evolved directly out of the late-night New Orleans Jazz Fest scene. And it evolved organically and naturally over a few years.” It all started when Medeski appeared on Will Bernard's album Blue Plate Special, released in 2008. After that album, they did a few Jazz Fest late-night gigs together, where the cast of musicians rotated. One year, they invited Kirk Joseph and Terrance Higgins to their late-night gig, and something clicked. "I produced a record called Buckjump for Dirty Dozen Brass Band in 1999,” says Medeski. "At the time, Terrance and Kirk were in the band. Ever since then, I had wanted to do something with that rhythm section. Will and I did late-nights a couple of years in a row with Kirk and Terrance, and there was a lot of chemistry there.”
Mad Skillet takes free-form journeys that are psychedelic at times; but always find their way back to reality within a deep groove, thanks to Kirk Joseph and Terrance Higgins. "The New Orleans rhythm section changes the backbone of everything. And that backbone influences everything else.”
Mad Skillet is a project where the unique musical voices of each player shine in ways they haven't before. According to Medeski, "Everybody is a great player. And everybody is a composer and a producer. The whole idea, for me, is that everyone gets to be themselves in this band. There is a lot of thought and intention. But, really we are just letting our personalities come together on-stage with no concept, and no words, to get in the way."
Most modern music has lyrics, or words, at the forefront. And most modern listeners will get sucked into words they can repeat, letting instrumentation fall into the background. Part of that has happened systematically as audio quality became compressed and compromised, and we began to listen to music on sub-par hardware. The words came forward in the sound, and if you tried to hear the range and presence of each instrument, you can't. By the time music gets to our ears, it is usually in much worse shape than when initially recorded in the studio. Whichever way you look at it, most folks are not listening to the "music" behind the lyrics; they are being entertained by words. Medeski doesn't want that for his listeners. He wants more. "Music is an advanced language, like mathematics, that tells its own story. Words cannot express what music expresses. Once you attach words to a song, you are telling people what to think, and I don't like to do that."
Medeski wants listeners to find their own story within his music, and he wants them to feel the music in a way most aren't. "Nearly everyone in America has a giant HD television with insane picture quality. Even folks with little money. It's like a necessity. But people are listening to music on their phones through crappy earbuds or bluetooth speakers. What if people experienced sound in the same way they experienced video nowadays? They would be able to feel it then."
That is a hell of a thought. And an important point. We need to rededicate ourselves as listeners and look deeper into the music. It seems as if those with the least musical or songwriting abilities are gaining the most popularity. Which is corresponding to the way most people on the planet listen to music - on the go, unaware, and through crappy equipment. It's all just entertainment that is usually in the background, not our primary focus. Mad Skillet demands more from its audience. When you listen to the album or stand in front of the stage, the music commands your attention. And you can't help but be transported to the higher planes of musical existence in which the members of Mad Skillet operate. You are with them. You are feeling the music. And no words, or concepts, are steering your experience.
So, instead of throwing Mad Skillet on in the background, experience the music as Medeski wants you too. Listen to the album from start to finish with nothing else distracting you. Preferably, through a pair of quality speakers powered by an amplifier. If you don't have a stereo at home, find a friend who does, and go hang out and experience it together. You may be inspired to spend as much on your listening equipment as your television. Or, better yet, go to the live show, put your phone away, resist chatting, and dig deep into what is happening right there in front of you. And on the way out buy some merch and the album. This project deserves our undivided attention and full support. So does Medeski's entire career.
John Medeski’s Mad Skillet
Thursday, October 3rd