Every time I put on the eponymous debut of keyboardist John Medeski’s new band Mad Skillet, I find myself daydreaming about New Orleans.
The opening laxidasical groove of “Man About Town” gives me the fantasy of walking around Bourbon Street on a bright day with a classic Sazerac in my hand, buzzing as I try and absorb one of America’s musical Mecca.
The “pah-rump” of the sousaphonian bass line in “Little Miss Piggy” puts a bump in my step as the drinks continue to flow. As the vices overcome me, I slosh around in the surreal tangents of “Tuna In A Can,” finding a respite in a hole in a wall juke joint that plays Big Easy R&B like “The Heart of Soul.” By nightfall, I have found my second wind and the party is back in full swing with the showtime funk of “Invincible Bubble.”
I’ve never been to New Orleans and the only experience I have with the city is listening to the iconic music it’s created throughout history. It is the intangible wonder of the music that has inspired millions of people to make pilgrimages to the Crescent City every year to experience cultural cornerstones such as Jazz Fest and Mardi Gras, to walk Bourbon Street and bop in and out of venues such as Tipitina’s and Preservation Hall. The music just makes you want to be there.
John Medeski knows the feeling all too well. He’s from Kentucky, grew up in Florida and made a name for himself in New York’s jazz scene, culminating in the influential trio Medeski Martin & Wood. But he, too, was seduced by the city’s culture and history and the musician found a way to slip into sit-ins and late-night jams that sprouted up during festivals over the ensuing decades. He was an outsider who just wanted to learn the language and be a part of the conversation.
Now, he’s as fluent in the musical language of the city as anyone outside of New Orleans might hope to be. Mad Skillet is a chance to listen to Medeski having fun and shooting the breeze with some of his favorite New Orleans musicians. Joining Medeski is guitarist Will Bernard and Dirty Dozen Brass Band’s Terence Higgins on drums and Kirk Joseph on sousaphone. The chemistry of the band solidified over years of jamming together during late-night Jazz Fest sets — and the excitement these musicians have with improvisational conversations — can heard all throughout the band’s debut album.
Mad Skillet is as representative of the music and culture of New Orleans as anything coming out today. In Higgins and Joseph you have the tradition and legacy of the city. In Bernard you have the encyclopedic ability to adapt to and support any musical environment. In Medeski you have a rich improvisational spirit willing to go wherever the conversations goes.
You’ll feel the intangible pull of New Orleans as Mad Skillet’s record spins. You’ll feel it even more if you are able to catch the band live. But it will all be a dream of sorts until you find yourself talking the talk, walking the walk and dancing the dance along the shores of Lake Pontchartrain, turning a fantasy into reality.
Let me know when you go — first round of Sazerac’s are on me.
Tahoe Onstage: How did Mad Skillet come together?
John Medeski: Sort of a dual origin story. I met Terence Higgins and Kirk Joseph back in ‘99 when when I did this Dirty Dozen Brass record “Buck Jump” in New Orleans. It was in my mind somewhere I would love to do something with Kirk and Terrence down the line. I had different ideas along the years that just never really happened. Shoot to 10 years ago, we did Will Barnes’ record “Blue Plate Special.” From that point on, Will and I would, every year during Jazz Fest, get a gig together of some kind, whatever we could get. At one point, we got Kirk on the gig and the next year we got Terrence and Kirk. This dream went from a reality with Will and we did a gig without plans to do anything and it was amazing. We did again the following year and it was clear there was special chemistry and combination.
What songs have been fun to be reintroduced to as you prepare this album for live audiences?
Every single one of them. All the tunes are fun, each one has a different personality. It’s great to playing grooving things in this band. Everyone is also very much a producer and composer and arranger. When we improvise together all that comes into play. What was fun and challenging was to do “Tuna In a Can” and “Psychedelic Rhino” because they were improvisations in the studio. Then we worked on some parts and when I went to mix it I put it together and created a whole piece of music out them. Those have been really fun to sort of re-realize it live.
You mentioned in press for the album that “there’s a certain feel that New Orleans guys have that you can’t get anywhere else.” Can you elaborate on what that means?
Two things. There is a certain history and tradition there that has been kept alive in the music. People from there have been brought up with it and they’ve intentionally studied it and the music scene has stayed alive. So they bring that element into the music and the rhythm section.
The other thing is there is something that happens when you go down there, there is a significant feeling in the air that affects anyone who goes. That’s why I recorded there, you play differently down there. No matter how much we study that music, we’re still never going to be from down there, but when you are an improviser you tap into the energy of the place. Every room and show, you feel out the audience and the place. It’s hard to put into words but anyone who has been there knows it.
How would you describe your musical personality?
I don’t think about it like that. Schizophrenic (laughs). I really see music as a language and that is the language I speak and my personality comes through it. I like a lot of music. One thing I do try to do is be myself, even when I am playing something in a different genre or another style of music. I am trying to find the my connection inside myself, my heart, to the music.
When was a time in which you were pushed out of your comfort zone into unknown territory musically?
I try to absorb. I worked for this Peruvian singer Susana Baca. That was a serious test to fit into that music. It doesn’t really have keyboards and the rhythm is very complex and different compared to anything I’ve done before. I really had to dig in and study that music to find where I could fit in. That was really an adventure and a beautiful experience.
— Garrett Bethmann