JPG: You mentioned Medeski Martin & Wood’s time together. Being such a busy person, did you have to be reminded of the 25th anniversary or was it marked on your calendar?
JM: Well, sort of, half and half. We had our 20th…you could ask my wife I’m really bad about that stuff. I don’t even know how many years I’ve been married. I don’t keep track of…that’s not my thing. Chris Wood is good at that stuff. He’s like the organizer. We all each had our roles. If I wanted to know the name of the club we played in wherever whenever I’d call Chris and ask him.
JPG: What was your role if he was the organizer?
JM: Good question. I cooked. I’m in charge of food and morale.
JPG: If you’re a good cook that certainly would raise morale. So, as for the 25th anniversary of the band, is there any particular meaning to you or is it just a good excuse to get together again?
JM: Just the fact that we’ve been together this long is meaningful. That was nothing we ever imagined or thought of when we got together. And what I’ve been saying because it’s true is that we wouldn’t be together and, from the beginning, we wouldn’t have stayed together if it wasn’t still musically creatively fun and still felt vital. None of us are that kind of musician…
In our early days when we were going around playing rock festivals and opening up for different bands we saw what it was like for bands who hated each other but got up onstage and played the same songs that they were doing a long time ago. That was not what any of us wanted and nothing any of us wants as far as being musicians. The fact that we still actually get along, we get together to play, we hang out, we go get dinner. It’s family-like. Still, when we play it feels good. There’s a certain chemistry that is very comfortable and creative.
JPG: MMW hasn’t had a regular schedule of touring in a number of years and your last studio effort was 2009’s Radiolarians, so was it just a matter of a hiatus and everyone got involved with other projects and time passed quickly?
JM: We made an announcement last year. We took last year off. Then, it extended into this year. We decided to do something for our 25th: We made a live recording with Alarm Will Sound in Colorado over a year ago and we’re trying to figure out how to release it. For our 20th anniversary we did record 20 songs and only released them digitally. Radiolarians was our last full-on release. We’ve been talking about doing something next year. The hiatus just sort of happened. From the beginning we talked about, “We should take a year off and do other things,” but the band was just snowballing and we couldn’t stop. It’s not easy to put the brakes on. So, we kinda did. The brakes are on.
JPG: I know how it is for me and the work that I do. So, I imagine it’s similar for you that the hardest thing for a musician to say is the word, “No.”
JM: Oh, I can’t say it. My dad used to make fun of me that I would play for anything.
JPG: That’s why you’re going to California today and then back to New York tomorrow.
JM: Yeah. My dad used to say, “You’d play for a goat screwing if they asked you.” And the truth is I would.
JPG: You’re a working musician. You’ve got to work.
JM: I had a teacher, Lee Shaw, a long time ago when I was 11, who told me “If you get asked to do a gig say, “Yes, and then figure out how to do it by the time the gig comes up.”
I also like a lot of different kinds of music. In this past month how am I gonna say, “No,” to a little tour with Scofield, Steve Swallow and Bill Stewart or how am I gonna say, “No,” to George Porter and Zigaboo [Modeliste] and go play the Meters music with them? How am I gonna say, “No,” to a night of crazy creative insane music with Nels Cline, Steve Bernstein, Julian Lage, Chris Lightcap and Billy last night? Or how am I gonna say, “No,” to playing with the Campbell Brothers the night before that? So many amazing opportunities that have come up…yeah, just going with it.
Then, I come back to New York tomorrow and I’m working with [John] Zorn and also with DRKWAV for a late night set. It’s all great music, great people.
JPG: What did you find when you originally played with Billy and Chris and do you find that same thing when you play with all the people you just listed as well as others?
JM: It’s different chemistry. Chemistry is different with everybody. I’m not looking for the same feeling from all the different things I play with. I’m definitely looking for a certain spirit to be there. When there’s chemistry, there’s a resonance that happens but it’s kinda beyond words. You just know it or you feel it. With Billy and Chris that’s why everything happened the way that it did. We got together, played and there was some kind of chemistry instantly. The very first thing we played together. We were at Billy’s loft and recorded it. We ended up transcribing it into a tune on our first record. The first improvisation was a tune called “Uncle Chubb.” It’s just what happened. We instantly started making music. At that time for me, having just moved to New York City, and being slightly disappointed in the jazz scene and its connection to creativity and whatever spirit jazz used to have…it still does have it when certain people play but it’s the idea of having a personality and creating something new…
When the three of us got together something clicked. There was definitely instant chemistry, making instant music. It wasn’t trying to be anything other than itself and that resonated in all of us. That’s why we knew that there was something there and pursued it. Usually, up to that point, you try to do this, you try to do that. You’re in this style, learning that style. Everything’s very derivative. Although all music is coming from somewhere and has roots in many things, it’s the spirit. And the spirit of Medeski Martin & Wood when we first got together was not remotely derivative. We were inspired by a lot of things but we were also pushing to really be who we were. A lot of musicians are very good at and spend their lives being something they want to be or something they should be or something that they think people want them to be that other people will like and naturally be themselves. The great ones do, the ones we love, the ones we admire, the ones we end up trying to copy. It’s kind of a loop. Medeski Martin & Wood didn’t feel like that.