John Medeski has always been good at confounding expectations. A Different Time, Medeski’s first-ever solo album, is out this week. To get a sense of just how unexpected it is, head to the Kleinert/James Center for the Arts in Woodstock on Friday, April 12.
“It’s very inside, very un-grooving and very spacious,” said Medeski. “I guess subconsciously there’s a rebellious part of me that wants to put this record out, because everybody thinks they’ve got me figured out.”
Perhaps best-known for his work with the funk-and-hip-hop-influenced improvisational jazz trio Medeski Martin & Wood, Medeski said that the opportunity to show a different side of his personality was finally too tempting to ignore. “Piano is my first instrument,” he said. “I’ve been told I should do a solo record for years and years, and I’ve said I want to do it, and the truth is I’ve always had so many other things going on, whether it’s producing or playing on other people’s records or touring, and I’ve never taken the time to do it. And finally we booked the time.”
Medeski decamped to producer Henry Hirsch’s Waterfront Studios in Hudson, a studio built inside an 1869 church. A Steinway-endorsed artist, Medeski rented a piano and primarily used it and another Steinway already in the studio. “I sat down and recorded over a couple of evenings – we did it at night to keep all the outside sounds out,” he said. “Recording solo piano requires a different sonic world. I played a lot of different stuff, first on the newer Steinway I rented, and then on the other Steinway.”
Unhappy with the sound, and with an eye on a “more old-school classical style of recording,” Medeski moved to another piano in the studio, a 1924 Gaveau. “It’s an older instrument – sort of the era of piano Chopin would have played,” he said. “He preferred a Pleyel, but it’s of this era, mechanically. It requires so much more control and touch to make a good sound on it. But it has a different kind of resonance. And it inspired me to play a certain kind of music, which is what ended up on the record, which is definitely more spacious and I guess meditative. And when I went back and listened to the recordings of everything I did, the stuff I did on the Gaveau…it’s not at all what anybody would expect. It just stood out to me. It was so obvious that this was the record.”
The resulting sound made it clear to Medeski that his album would be entirely recorded on the Gaveau. A Different Time, out on the recently revived OKeh label, is fittingly an intimate work. “Playing solo piano is one of my favorite things,” he said. “The record was almost difficult for me to put out, because it’s so personal. It’s almost like letting you see my diary. It’s part of my own personal musical work, and it’s at the basis of everything I do.”
Medeski will bring the Gaveau along on his four currently scheduled solo dates, which began in Chicago on Sunday, April 7 and wrap up in Woodstock on Friday, April 12. Five days later, Medeski Martin & Wood will begin a two-week West Coast trek, and then Medeski will travel the world both with MMW and with John Zorn in celebration of the avant-garde composer/saxophonist’s 60th birthday. But while his solo tour is brief, Medeski said that he expects to continue to do more solo work whenever time allows.
“One of the things I love is improvising,” he said. “It’s music for the moment and of the moment.”
John Medeski performs solo piano on Friday, April 12 at 8 p.m. at the Kleinert/James Center for the Arts, located at 36 Tinker Street in Woodstock. Tickets $22 for members, $25 for non-members. For more information, visit www.johnmedeski.com and ulsterpub.staging.wpengineguild.org/johnmedeski.html.