John Medeski Heats Up a Mad Skillet

The late 1980s/early 1990s was a curious time in the music business. The bizarre commercial experiments of one decade bled into a thriving DIY music culture that redefined a generation of sounds to come.

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“When I first moved [to downtown Manhattan], I was checking out different scenes,” John Medeski says of his days in the avant-garde scene. “I was feeling out the jazz scene a little that at the time was odd for me. When I went and played at jazz sessions in the city, it was sort of a turn-off. It was horn players lined up, spewing on top of the rhythm section. The downtown scene seemed more truly creative with improvisation and interaction, not just regurgitation. It was people melding different types of music together. So, I gravitated to the downtown New York scene.”

The virtuoso keyboardist gigged with The Lounge Lizards before making his premiere with the seminal Medeski, Martin and Wood trio at Village Gate during a time when fabled Manhattan venues such as CBGBs and The Knitting Factory still put on shows every night.

“When I was there, everyone lived on the Lower East Side,” says Medeski. “The musicians moved to less expensive areas of Manhattan back then. When people went out to Brooklyn, that spread things out. The music is still great and happening, but the scene has changed.”

Medeski now resides in the Hudson Valley, a couple hours north of the metro area.

“I think our approach has stayed the same,” he says of the trio that has averaged more than one album per year in their 27 years as a band. “We try to be open. We are dealing with sound and rhythm, shaping it into music from a real basic level. Using certain spirits of jazz, we deal with whatever comes up and just make music. But I would never call what we do jazz.”

The trio released their latest collaboration with 19-piece orchestra Alarm Will Sound this past September, a seven-piece opus called “Omnisphere.”

“In this case, different people did different things,” he says. “Their conductor is not a dictator; he leads them. You’re trying things out and collectively deciding. We each add our own personality or parts. We improvise, we listen to it, say, ‘What does it need?’ Go on to the next section. The democratic process takes a little longer.”

Throughout his career, Medeski has been known for his many collaborations with musicians ranging from Phish and North Mississippi Allstars to John Scofield and Béla Fleck. When he arrives in Lake Tahoe on Feb. 20, he’ll be performing with his latest project: John Medeski’s Mad Skillet.

“Like all good things, it’s sort of evolved organically out of the music,” he says.

In 1999, Medeski produced the album, “Buck Jump” for The Dirty Dozen Brass Band. He was impressed by the loose energy of a rhythm section made by sousaphone player Kirk Joseph and drummer Terrence Higgins. Then came a series of annual late-night shows at New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival with Bay Area guitarist Will Bernard.

“I saw how great he is live,” Medeski says. “He is a very versatile guitar player from jazz to gypsy to funk rock.”

They recorded Mad Skillet’s album at The Living Room, a studio built in a Depression-era church across the Mississippi River from downtown New Orleans. For Medeski, it has and always will be about the group experience.

“The stuff I like is when it makes sense, when the band has a magic chemistry,” he says. “At the end of the day for me, it has to come out of the music.”

He talks about his popular project in 2000 with Robert Randolph and the Dickenson Brothers known as The Word.

“We talked and we didn’t talk about anything,” says Medeski. “When we are all ourselves together, we find a common ground and that’s what makes a band with a vibe that is unique, a band that has personality. Everyone is free to be themselves in this band.”

In 2019, Medeski will be cooking up a new record with Warren Haynes of Gov’t Mule, as well as a duo project of Sun Ra material with cornetist Kirk Knuffke.

According to Medeski, 2019 will bring more collaborations: “I’m sure other things will come up. It definitely keeps you growing.” | crystalbaycasino.com