Keyboard master John Medeski thrives on the unpredictable, a trait that has kept his work with the trailblazing trio Medeski Martin & Wood (MMW) fresh and surprising for more than twenty years. With A Different Time, his first solo piano project, Medeski once again takes his sound in a completely unexpected direction _ unexpected even to him.
“I had a more eclectic record in mind,” Medeski says. “I wanted to put out something that would be more representative of what my live solo concerts are like.”
Instead, A Different Time (out April 9 _ the first release on Sony Classical’s newly-revived OKeh Records imprint) is a far more introspective, meditative collection than fans of MMW’s lively, groove-driven music might expect. Consisting mostly of Medeski’s own compositions and improvisations, with a familiar spiritual and a Willie Nelson song added into the mix, the album presents a different side of Medeski’s prodigious artistry, one which he was initially reluctant to display.
“In all honesty, it was a little scary to put this out because it’s so meditative and contemplative,” Medeski admits. “I know it’s not what anybody’s expecting, but it’s a side of me that exists. It’s really raw and open, stripped of all hipness. But it’s made me a little less afraid to just drop into the moment and play what’s coming to me as opposed to something that I know will work, something that I know is cool, something that I know will have a certain effect. The whole point is to get lost in the music.”
Not just a first for Medeski, A Different Time also marks the return of the historic OKeh label, once home for such jazz pioneers as Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, King Oliver, and Sidney Bechet. Sony Classical has revived the label as an outlet for new jazz releases by artists like Medeski, Bill Frisell, David Sanborn, and Bob James, among others to be announced. “At this point,” Medeski says, “after everything that’s gone on in the music business, it’s exciting that Sony has come around to releasing new creative music again. I like the energy of being part of something new.”
While he’s become better known for a more buoyant, organ-centric approach that melds free-wheeling jazz with jam band eclecticism, Medeski says that sitting alone at a piano feels natural, returning him to his earliest experiences at the keyboard. “I grew up playing piano my whole life,” he says, “so it feels like home to me.” He began playing more solo concerts in recent years, and decided it was time to document that aspect of his playing.
The album was recorded at Waterfront Studios, producer Henry Hirsch’s recording studio built within a 19th-century church in New York’s scenic Hudson Valley. For his solo debut, Medeski wanted to aim for a sound quality that approached his personal “Holy Grail,” the recordings that classical pianist Arthur Rubinstein made for RCA Records. Hirsch shared his admiration for those sessions, so Medeski spent several days recording on Waterfront’s nine-foot Steinway piano.
But Hirsch also encouraged Medeski to try the studio’s other piano, a 1924 Gaveau _ a French piano made in a pre-modern style, akin to Chopin’s preferred model, the Pleyel. The instrument, as it turned out, was a revelation and made a profound impact on the music that came to be A Different Time.
“The Gaveau required a very delicate, controlled touch,” Medeski explains. “It is much harder to get a good sound out of it than it is on a regular piano. You have to use a lot of control; touch makes a huge difference and when you play delicately you can get a lot of nuance and really make this instrument sing. I tried a lot of things that had never worked for me before, and when I went back and listened to all of the recordings, that stuff stuck out as the most unique.”
The entirety of A Different Time was recorded on the Gaveau, with minimal electronics in order to capture the instrument’s full dynamic range. The sessions were undertaken late at night, when outside noise was at a minimum and a more crepuscular mood settled over the church. As Medeski writes in his liner notes, he hopes that listeners approach the album in the same atmosphere, at a time “when social responsibilities are over, when the political questions of the day have been dealt with, when all gossip has come to an end, when all needs and wants have been put to momentary rest, when all plans have been made, when you are tired of words, and you are ready to yield to the sounds of these simple contemplations for the Gaveau.”
The album begins with the title track, a stark “spontaneous composition” improvised by Medeski at the Gaveau. The name has several connotations, evoking that night-time ambience but also harkening back to a time when records occupied a listener’s full attention, before the multifarious distractions of the modern world. “There was a time when people used to sit down and listen to music, when it wasn’t just the soundtrack to your life,” Medeski says. “I remember sitting in a room with a group of people, experiencing music together, at a time when we as human beings really got lost in the sound.”
A Different Time offers a sustained opportunity to become lost in Medeski’s deeply personal sound, presenting an intensely focused experience of keen emotional virtuosity. The selection ranges from the tender Willie Nelson ballad “I’m Falling in Love Again,” a piece which Medeski has long wanted to record and which finally found its best expression through the Gaveau; to “His Eye Is On the Sparrow,” a traditional spiritual that Medeski approaches with a lush reverence.
“Ran” is another tune for which Medeski has long sought the proper context, the album’s sole through-composed piece. The wistful “Otis,” which closes the album, was originally recorded on Notes From the Underground, MMW’s 1992 debut album. The sing-song “Waiting at the Gate” dates back even further, to a musical Medeski wrote in his teens. “It’s just a little tune that I wrote when I was a kid and never played for anybody,” Medeski laughs. “Ever.”
The heart-breakingly gorgeous “Luz Marina” was written for Mama Kia, the founder of an orphanage in Peru who passed away in 2010. Luz Marina was the name of her first adopted child, who died at a tender age. Medeski sought to depict Mama Kia’s inspirational and generous spirit through the piece. The final two pieces are both improvisations: “Graveyard Fields,” which shares the deceptively morbid name of a bucolic area in North Carolina, and the darkly tinged “Lacrima,” more aptly named for the Italian word for “tear.”
The fact that he didn’t try out the Gaveau until he thought he’d already gotten a full album in the can took a considerable amount of pressure off of Medeski’s shoulders, opening him up to the more naked, vulnerable sound of the album.
“I was just playing music,” he says. It was just about dealing with the instrument and the room and making the music that felt good. I just got lost in the sound, and that’s really the ultimate goal anytime you sit down to play.”
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