Best known for his keyboard work with the Medeski Martin & Wood trio, John Medeski debuts his first solo piano album, A Different Time, as the initial release on Sony Classical’s revival of the classic Okeh jazz label. Okeh, most notably associated with jazz giants like Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington, is a way of linking current jazz artists like Medeski, artists developing their own voices with the great tradition, and perhaps giving the jazz market a reinvigorating shot in the arm while they’re at it. If the Medeski album is any indication of what’s to come, it’s a project that has a very bright future.
Fans of Medeski’s trio work, accustomed to their “lively, groove driven” style with his “organ-centric approach” will find that the performer has another side. “I know it’s not what anybody’s expecting,” Medeski acknowledges, “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.” And it is the kind of beautiful contemplative music that pianist and listener can both get lost in.
While recording at Waterfront Studios, producer Henry Hirsch encouraged Medeski to try the studio’s 1925 Gaveau. A French model piano that Medeski explains “required a very delicate, controlled touch.” It enabled the pianist to nuance his playing and “really make this instrument sing.” And sing it does echoing the sad, sweet sounds one poet heard in the nightingale.
Although the meditative mood dominates all the tracks on the album, there is some variety in the choice of material. The title track, along with two other pieces on the album, “Graveyard Fields” and “Lacrima” (tears), are improvised, “spontaneous compositions.” “Ran,” on the other hand is a through-composed piece, the only one on the album. Other Medeski compositions include “Waiting at the Gate,” written when he was in his teens, “Otis,” and “Luz Marina,” written for the founder of a Peruvian orphanage who died in 2010. The Willie Nelson classic “I’m Falling In Love Again” and the spiritual “His Eye Is on the Sparrow,” made famous back in the day by Ethel Waters, round out the album.
A Different Time may be the work of a different Medeski, a tender, sensitive Medeski, but it is a Medeski I, for one, would like to hear more often.