Medeski

John Medeski’s Mad Skillet honors its New Orleans jazz and funk heritage without being tethered to it.

There’s something special about pianist John Medeski’s new band.

Medeski, a consummate gigger who has played with just about everyone in jazz, doesn’t feel every project has to end with an album. Sometimes the live performances are enough, but Mad Skillet needed to be memorialized.

“The first time we got together it had that magical vibe,” Medeski said. “It became clear why we should record this.”

Medeski likened recording an album to creating other permanent art forms, like writing a novel. The live performance is akin to watching a poet read, which carries its own kind of power, but an album gives the listener a complete work of art to return to.

“To go a little deeper and create something, a work to listen to, it’s another thing,” he said.

Listening to the eponymous album, it’s clear what the musicians heard. With guitarist Will Bernard, drummer Terence Higgins and sousaphonist Kirk Joseph, the album has a quintessentially New Orleans sound, but with a healthy dose of the experimentation Medeski is known for.

The album’s first tracks, evocative of street dancers and funk, would sound right at home in a late-night set at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, which is coincidentally where the project started about four years ago. Joseph and Higgins are veterans of the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, and the opening of the album pays tribute to the place where the album was recorded.

“Will plays very different in New Orleans,” Medeski said. “Something happens to musicians there; it’s the food, the air, the culture.”

The upfront organs and funky sousaphone bass lines of the album’s first tracks give way, inevitably, to something more traditionally Medeski. By the time “Tuna in a Can,” the third track, gets going the sousaphone keeps up the agile bass line while Bernard cuts an atmospheric guitar around syncopated organs and drums.

The rest of the album is a push and pull between those two sounds, Medeski’s penchant for the avant-garde and the New Orleans brass band roots, sometimes with the two happening concurrently.

Come Tuesday, Mad Skillet will take the Center for the Arts stage to bring its array of talent to Jackson. But those who listen to the album and expect to hear it verbatim should remember Medeski’s delineation between records and live performance.

“A song has parameters and a certain feel,” Medeski said. “But there are so many ways it can be different and we can improve and create something new with that skeleton or form.”

In the same way that he envisions building an album, Medeski has a feel for how a show unfolds. That can change the way the band plays a song or arranges the set list. But even with a plan, the players’ ability to improvise can change an entire set.

“This band has an endless pool,” Medeski said. “The spontaneous compositions are never-ending; really there’s no limit to what this band can do.”

With open-ended possibilities coming to the Center stage at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Medeski had some advice for concertgoers: Have an open mind and an open ear. Even if you’ve heard him with groups like Medeski, Martin, and Wood, don’t expect this to be quite the same. If you like the New Orleans sound of the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, know that it will be there, but not always front and center.

But you should expect to want to move, once you leave your preconceptions at the door.

“How the listener will react?” Medeski said. “That’s on the listener, not the artist. The intent of the artist is one thing, but it requires an openness on the part of the listeners and a certain kind of listening.

“I don’t like to ruin possibilities or close any doors to say what it’s supposed to be.” 

Contact Tom Hallberg at 732-5902 or thallberg@jhnewsandguide.com.

Tom Hallberg covers a little bit of everything, from skiing to long-form feature stories. A Teton Valley, Idaho, transplant by way of Portland and Bend, Oregon, he spends his time outside work writing fiction, splitboarding and climbing.

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