Review by J Hunter
The guy was sitting about a third of the way up the center section of seats in College of St. Rose’s Massry Center, meticulously setting up two small microphones on a tri-pod. Photographs may have been prohibited for John Medeski’s solo-piano show, but apparently digital recording was cool. No big whoop, really, since audience recording is as prevalent at Medeski Martin & Wood concerts as it was at Grateful Dead shows back in the day. But, as this young man was going to find out with the rest of us, this would not be an MMW show – not by a long shot.
Mind you, Medeski looked the same, coming out onstage in faded black jeans and wearing a rumpled grey jacket over his signature untucked Hawaiian shirt. (I’m thinking he wore the jacket because hey, this is kinda-sorta a piano recital, in a concert hall designed for such, so you have to be a little more formal.) Medeski also carried an armful of supplies with him: An extra-large bottle of water, a case just big enough for his Melodica and a small black satchel that could have carried sheet music. Medeski only touched the water during his 90-minutes-plus show, but I’m guessing he was being a good camper and preparing for every eventuality.
He definitely needed the water after his opening “number,” which started with the first notes of the title track from A Different Time (the solo-piano recording he released earlier this year) and ended with a brilliant reading of the MMW classic “Where’s Sly?” In between those two pieces, there was an unbroken 67-minute ride that went from bare-bones classical music to bawdy boogie-woogie, with hefty side orders of dark avant-garde thunder that must have made the brain inside the digital recorder think, “What the fuck are you DOING to me?” Another MMW piece – “Otis,” which closes A Different Time – was “somewhere in there,” as an out-of-breath Medeski told us after it was all over, but there were also old folk songs and Great American Songbook titles that either flew by so fast that you barely saw them, or were so transformed that they were barely recognizable.
After watching Aaron Parks gently coax the notes out of his piano at Zankel Music Center the night before (read review here), seeing Medeski’s all-out-blitz attack was a real brain-changer. He’s got the same safecracker touch Parks has, and we saw plenty of that on this evening. But there were more than a few moments – usually where Medeski seemed to be channeling Igor Stravinsky – where it seemed like the piano would collapse from the absolute beatdown it was getting. These weren’t notes for notes sake; they all made sense in what Medeski was trying to do. But the raw power that came out of this one man with one instrument was streaks ahead of what most traditional rock bands can offer. The piano’s sustain pedal got plenty of work, too, as did the low-end strings Medeski plucked, scratched and scraped to get the sounds he wanted.
Lee Shaw got a vague reference in the program bio as one of Medeski’s early teachers during his upbringing in Florida. His publicist probably crafted the words, because Massry majordomo Sal Prizio would have been a little more fulsome about Greater Nippertown’s own piano icon. Medeski wasn’t about to leave it there, though, as he gave a heartfelt shout-out to Shaw, who was sitting one row below the bearded recordist. Shaw – on oxygen, and brought into Massry with help from a friend and a metal walker – smiled and waved at Medeski as he laughingly told us, “This is all her fault!” He then sat back down at the piano and pulled out Johnny Mercer’s “I Remember You”, which he promptly (and beautifully) deconstructed after establishing Mercer’s lyric. He closed the program with “Wiggly’s Way,” which he played with Shaw on their release Together Again: Live at the Egg.
I wasn’t a huge fan of A Different Time when it came out – not because it was different from what Medeski Martin & Wood do, but because I felt there were solo-piano releases that gave me much more range and color. All that range & color hurtled right into my face during this show, as Medeski left studio etiquette behind and let his inner musical madman take him wherever it wanted to go. My friend with the recorder may not have gotten what he wanted (or expected, come to that), but I sure did.
Jeff Waggoner’s review at Albany Jazz