Pop/Rock/World CD Reviews

John Medeski, solo piano – A Different Time – Okeh

A Medeski, Martin and Wood member goes solo with superbly subtle results.

Published on July 14, 2013

John Medeski, solo piano – A Different Time – Okeh [Dist. by Sony Masterworks] 88765444462, 41:28 [4/9/13] ****:

Anyone familiar with John Medeski needs to throw out expectations regarding his debut solo effort, A Different Time. The cover art’s photo of a piano on a rug flying above clouds is a clue this is distinctive from Medeski’s previous output. Medeski is famous as one third of Medeski, Martin & Wood, the active and popular jam band/soul jazz outfit known for groove-based music which appeals to fans outside the jazz audience. While Medeski got his reputation for his Hammond B-3 skills, A Different Time presents nine solo acoustic piano compositions: seven Medeski originals alongside a traditional spiritual hymn and a Willie Nelson cover. Aptly, A Different Time is the initial release on Sony Classical’s newly-revived Okeh Records imprint, which in its older incarnation was home to jazz pioneers such as Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and others. Over the course of 41 minutes, Medeski returns to his roots, when he learned to play on acoustic pianos. This is meditative jazz music with hints of classical: open and tender, stripped of any contemporary hipness. The material is natural and so is the recording, made at Waterfront Studios, built within a 19th-century church in New York’s Hudson Valley. Adding to the ambiance and directness, Medeski uses a 1924 Gaveau piano, a French keyboard constructed in a pre-modern style akin to Chopin’s preferred model, the Pleyel. It was an inspired choice, but not necessarily an easy one. Medeski states, “The Gaveau required a very delicate, controlled touch. 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.”

That delicate empathy can be discerned on the opening title track, an austere improvisation. The piece, as well as the record’s title, is connotative of several elements: a nighttime atmosphere (much of the recording took place after the sun set, when outside noises were minimized); and long-lost times when listeners would sit in front of a gramophone or a hi-fi stereo cabinet and pay close attention to the music. Medeski’s other originals include the through-composed “Ran” (at 1:53, the shortest cut), a demonstration of Medeski’s finely-honed improvisational sense, as well as his facility to engage each instance of his performance. The gentle ballad “Luz Marina” is a tribute to Mama Kia, who founded a Peruvian orphanage. The ballad’s title is the name of her first adopted child, who tragically passed away. Some of Medeski’s tracks go back several years or decades. The wistful, closing “Otis” was formerly done by Medeski, Martin and Wood (it can be heard on the trio’s 1992 outing, Notes from the Underground). Medeski does not stray far from the trio version, but with the bass, snare and hi-hat rhythm excised, the ballad’s elegance is firmly in the forefront. The hushed, beautiful “Waiting at the Gate” dates back even further. It was penned when Medeski was a teen prodigy. Medeski notes, “It’s just a little tune that I wrote when I was a kid and never played for anybody. Ever.” Thankfully, Medeski did not forget the memorable number, which has a refined melody evocative of the turn of the century, reminiscent of Charles Ives. Another standout is “Graveyard Fields,” where Medeski utilizes the deeper reverberation of the piano’s lower register, when one can appreciate the Gaveau’s resonance via the piano’s indicative timbre and tonal quality.

The two covers are also prominent. Medeski says he has intended to tackle Willie Nelson’s haunting ballad “I’m Falling in Love Again” for a long time. Medeski starts with a probing intro which highlights the keyboard’s emotional, higher register, then subtly traverses to lower keys to accentuate a an extra expression within the same phrasing. Medeski maintains veneration during Charles Gabriel’s “His Eye Is on the Sparrow,” a well-liked gospel song previously interpreted by Mahalia Jackson, Aretha Franklin and many more.

This is an album to listen to with absorbed concentration. A Different Time was captured live-to-tape using both a ribbon and a tube microphone and processed through a vintage studio console, with minimal electronics, so the dynamic range can be noticed. One can hear the gaps between the keys, and the inside of the piano interior, and the room’s environmental vibration. For those who want a taste of the music and some background information there is a brief, online promo video, where Medeski plays a bit of music, talks about continuing to develop as an artist, and his desire to move beyond his comfort zone. Medeski also hints at things to come: he mentions his first solo venture won’t be his last.

TrackList: A Different Time; I’m Falling in Love Again; His Eye Is on the Sparrow; Ran; Graveyard Fields; Luz Marina; Waiting at the Gate; Lacrima; Otis.

—Doug Simpson




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