[3 June 2013]
Here is my tale of reviewing John Medeski’s new (and first) solo piano recording, A Different Time, featuring the Medeski, Martin & Wood keyboard wizard playing a 1924 French “Gaveau” piano.
This is the second review of this recording I have written. The first was destroyed in an unfortunate and embarrassing accident with my computer. My office desk was very messy, and when my lap was in need of a rest, I placed my laptop on the floor. And I forgot about it. And at some point I spun my desk chair around so it was behind me. And then, in a bit of goofy behavior, I pushed my chair backward like a little kid and I ran over the laptop with the wheels of my chair.
And as the computer emerged beneath my feet in a moment of decided crunching, I . . . uh, . . . I stood up on it.
So that first review of A Different Time was literally lost underfoot. The review was extremely negative. I will summarize it for you: Boy-o-boy is this thing gloomy and self-indulgent! It is a one-note dirge of a record that, perhaps, reflects Medeski’s sense that that MMW fans will dig just about anything that the jam band/jazz group puts out. Particularly if it takes itself too seriously.
And so—in a mood of some darkness and gloom about my electronic fate—I sat down to listen to this idiosyncratic recording again.
A second listening by a chagrined reviewer who really needed to relax yields this somewhat (but barely) less cranky review:
A Different Time is an exceptionally sensitive and beautiful recording, the kind of piano music that is too genuine in feeling to be dismissed as dull or simple. At the same time, this record relies so utterly on a single tone—a fragile and out-of-tempo minor key thrumming of gloom—that any listener is excused from wishing it were much more.
The premise of the disc is that this is an encounter between Medeski, who has always been an atmospheric player, and a particularly unique piano. This is a seven-foot piano that predates the “modern” piano and, according to Medeski, is much more responsive to “touch” than what contemporary players are used to. The piano, he writes, “responds to a more delicate, nuanced touch. . . . One must sing with the fingers.”
But what results here is a record that feels oddly muted. It is certainly “gentle”, but I don’t think there is anything about the Gaveau that requires slow tempos or a mushy approach. What Medeski has crafted here is breathtakingly gorgeous in small pieces—and a bore as a whole.
With the remnants of my computer still littering my conscious mind, there is little else I’d want to hear than the opener here, “A Different Time” (all but two tunes are by the pianist). It tinkles in the Gaveau’s high register, echoing like pure significance. The repeated figure set up by the right hand aches, and then a string of three slightly dissonant chords rises up. Beeeeeeeautiful! The repeated figure moves downward, and then carefully placed bass notes rumble from the depths. Ooooooh. My hard-drive-crunching soul was soothed.
But what do you know: the next tune (a version of Willie Nelson’s “I’m Falling in Love Again”) also starts up in the tinkly high register. And an alternating figure gets set up again. The tempo, again, creeps, and then the tune is stated a bit lower.
Got it? “Graveyard Fields” is pretty much the same thing. (And that song title, seriously.)
Other patterns emerge too, only to be repeated. Medeski has a tendency to thrum his chords a great deal, playing the Gaveau somewhat like a harp. On “Graveyard Fields” you get thrumming in the high register with the resonant low notes coming in like a clock tower. On “His Eye on the Sparrow”, it’s middle-of-the-piano thrumming. “Lacrima” tinkles with a bit more dissonance, but it leads into “Otis”, which thrums and tinkles at the same time, with the low note clock chimes coming in right on cue.
Is there no relief? Well…not really. “Luz Marina” is another compelling piece of prettiness—something that almost goes into tempo but not really. “Ran” uses dissonance in an interesting way, but it’s less than two minutes long. “Waiting at the Gate” is different, sounding almost like a modern hymn or a folk song in the Keith Jarrett mode, but you can be sure that it moves into tinkly mode about two-thirds of the way through, just when you’re hoping that it might develop some groove or some guts.
Maybe, you could say, it takes guts to make a record this insistent on its ways. Medeski knows what he wants out of this unique piano, and he gets it by going down a single, narrow path. A Different Time knows exactly what it wants to do.
But I would be surprised if you wanted to listen to the record over and over again. In the liner notes, Medeski writes that he hopes you will listen to it “late in the night when social responsibilities are over”. It is meant as meditation or reflection, but not music that reflects any of the full breadth of life.
Did it help me get over losing years of work when I ran over my computer in a moment of mindlessness? Yes. But then I listened further and wondered where the life is in this music, where the soul was.
To me, even the second and more sympathetic time around, that is a missing ingredient. And without it, all you’ve got is a gorgeous corpse—a laptop with its memory and words, a machine that can’t be fixed.