As Medeski Martin & Wood dive into their 30th anniversary, the keyboardist seeks some Eastern inspiration with the help of a Chinese martial-arts-trained, ceremonial folk healer.
Aware of the Natural World
When I was 17, I had really bad tendonitis, and it was a lifechanging event—I spent about five years trying to fix it. And I ended up going through a very non-Western approach—I found this amazing body worker in Florida who really helped me out. I started getting into my diet and becoming more aware of the natural world— and more aware in general. Ever since then, whenever I’ve had a major health issue, I’ve dealt with it naturally— acupuncture, herbal stuff. Slowly, the path evolved, and I found out about these different traditions in the Amazon and I started going down there every year to study with these masters.
Around 2008, my wife and I went down to Ecuador to work with a shaman healer, and that’s when we met Jeff Firewalker Schmitt, who is a [Chinese martial-arts-trained, ceremonial folk healer] from Asheville, N.C. He was also down there visiting these guys, and it was pretty odd to see another person [from the U.S.] down there—it’s a trek to get out to where we were. We stayed in loose touch and Jeff helped us bring some of these elders to the States. We had to get them visas, which is a whole process, and Jeff helped write some letters because he’s got the doctoral creds, the science creds.
During the last 10 years, he’s tried to hook up a little collaborative thing with [hip-hop artist] Agent 23 a few times. But, I was never able to make it happen—only because I was super busy touring and doing my thing. Then, this past year, he just approached me with the track “Painstorms” featuring Umar Bin Hassan from The Last Poets. It just felt right, and I started getting more involved, which led to [our new project] Saint Disruption.
A Certain Chemistry
Saint Disruption has been a very organic process, which is important to me in any musical undertaking. Most of the bands I’ve been involved in started that way. A certain chemistry has to be realized for an idea to evolve into something real. In this case, Jeff said, “I have this tune that needs some piano on it.” I’m a longtime Last Poets fan, so I gave it a shot. I’ve spent the whole pandemic working at a studio near me in Woodstock called Applehead. I have some keyboards there; that’s the spot I’ll go to when I want to record or film a stream. Like with any track I get, I listened to the poem and tried to figure out what they wanted, while still being me. Jeff loved what I came up with and sent over some other ideas and things started rolling from there.
We recorded our album, Rose in the Oblivion, mostly remotely—even a song like “Choke a Man.” He’d send me a poem or some ideas, and I’d add some real piano. But, at one point, Jeff did come up here to Woodstock. We took some photos together, I did some overdubs and we went through “Flight-19”—I played all these keyboards, sculpted the track a bit and mixed it.
But, we did several sessions along the way, and have a bunch of tracks that we can release later on. We’ll see how things open up, but I’m also hoping to go down there later this spring or this summer to work on some more music together. And we also are going to try to do a “poetry slam,” where we put out our music in a more immediate way— without laboring over creating these tracks. It’s going to be interactive, with me playing along with these poems.
[This Eastern approach] is a way of life, a faith. And that’s what gets you through these hard times—what you really believe. One of the things we are facing is fear and, in these life-or-death situations that we are experiencing, you really find out what you believe in and who you believe in. So, on that front, it has been a beautiful experience getting more in touch with that side of things through this music. It’s really solidified my feelings, and that’s helped us out a lot.
You Have to Zone In Before You Can Go “Out” There
We live in the woods, and it’s beautiful. I spent last summer on our land, in the garden. I’m usually so busy traveling that I’ve never spent a whole season in our garden, putting the time and energy into it and watching things grow.
I know that a lot of musicians are struggling and, one thing that doesn’t make sense to me is how people can go to bars and restaurants, but they can’t go to a club—while wearing a mask—to see music in a socially distanced way. It actually seems safer, to me, to see music at a distance than it does to go to a restaurant and be served by somebody. Even if they are wearing a mask when they serve you, you have to take your mask off to eat and drink and there’s so much turnover at a restaurant throughout the night. There was just a musician’s march in New York—one of the hallmarks of New York is that it is this creative center and, without that, it’s just another financial city. A lot of the ways that the pandemic has been handled in this country haven’t been logical and or very scientific, but I guess everybody’s desperately trying to just get through this thing. There’s definitely been a big exodus to Upstate New York from New York City.
I haven’t been in one place this long since probably high school so that part of the last year has been good. I’m always going somewhere for something. Being a musician, you have to put time into your instrument. You have to zone in before you can go “out” there. You have to constantly build your skills and work on whatever you do—writing, learning rhythm. It’s endless— it’s a lifelong journey to keep growing and getting better and refining. So, recently, I’ve spent a lot of my time practicing, and that has been great. But the financial side has been difficult—it’s really hard to keep things afloat without working. The whole streaming/Zoom universe is a novelty and not very conducive to that. Plus, everyone’s kind of over it at this point. I did do a few streams though— [John Scofield, Jesse Murphy, Billy Martin] and I did two as Bandemic, and I did a solo stream for Quarantine Comes Alive and a stream for a friend who was raising money for some folk-medicine people he’s connected with in Peru. And this university in Mexico sponsored a series that I helped curate; it’s basically five 20 or 25-minute solo sets with people like Marc Ribot, Zeena Parkins, Jen Shyu, Yuka Honda—and we did one final group one with Billy Martin on percussion, Allison Miller on drums, Charles Burnham on violin and me on keyboard and organ.
It’s interesting to see everybody’s solo performances at this time—everybody has a different amount of comfort. Jen and Yuka were at home and videoed themselves. Zeena had her partner film her in the studio and we stayed really separate in the booth so everyone was comfortable. And when we did the group session, everyone had to wear masks. So we responded to everyone’s needs in terms of comfort and safety.
I’ve done a few [incidental dining shows up here] at The Falcon—two with Club d’Elf and an organ trio with Marc Ribot. They were all a blast, though the final one took place the last week they could still do these shows outside and it was freezing. And I’ve been staying busy in the studio. I just finished a solo keyboard record—it’s just me on all kinds of synths and old vintage keyboards—and a record, Crawlspace, for John Zorn’s label that is going to come out this summer. And I’ve got a duo record with Kirk Knuffke that I’m finishing up of all Sun Ra material. All of Sun Ra’s charts and scores are in the Library of Congress, and there was a period where somebody was making copies of them for a very reasonable fee and they would send them up to me. So we actually worked off those charts, which was interesting because— growing up, listening to and loving the recordings—there’s actually some stuff in the charts that’s different from what is on his recordings.
MMW’s 30th anniversary is also this year, and we’re currently scheming about what we’re gonna do to celebate. We have a new record that we need to get out—it’s the record we were working on while they were making the documentary Not Not Jazz. The material is all there and just needs to be mixed. It’s definitely a slightly different direction for us.
And, in making this film, we unearthed all this archival footage of us making Shack-man and playing live. So, when things lighten up out there and Chris [Wood] is comfortable getting together and playing, we want to do some road work or a livestream. We’re talking about playing Shack-man live from our current perspectives and existence, which is going to be fun. And my first live gig, unless it all falls apart, is going to be in Slovenia this June. I’m playing Zorn’s music with the heavy metal organ trio Simulacrum as part of Chaos Magick. We just made a record, and it’s crazy, beautiful, intense music.
Surrender to the Air at 25
[This year marks 25 years since Trey Anastasio released] Surrender to the Air— he took a lot of musicians that he liked at that time and put them together and said, “Let’s play.” I went into it having no idea what Trey was gonna want to do, and I remember just being amazed by this great, beautiful vibe and how open everyone was. The whole concept of the record was playing spontaneously, creating this music in a very free way. There was a great vibe and that’s because Trey is a very positive force—just a great guy. Whenever we’ve hung out, there’s been such a positive vibe around him. I remember working with Bob Gullotti, who recently left the planet, on that album, and, of course, I loved working with Marshall Allen and some of the Sun Ra guys like Michael Ray, who lived in New Orleans and played in Kool & The Gang. I’m a huge Marshall Allen fan—he ended up playing on the MMW record The Dropper—and we played on bills with them back in the day. It was a historic time; there was this cross-pollination of all these groups back then. It was epic that Trey got all of these people together and, to be honest, I respect Trey for doing that—what we did was really out of the box in terms of what those fans are looking for. And he just went for it regardless—a lot of people don’t have the gumption to do that.
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