Keyboardist John Medeski’s Mad Skillet is many things: swirling psychedelic organ, gutbucket piano, out-of-body spontaneous composition, badass sousaphone bass-lines, old-school R&B flavor, heavy funk, surf guitar, slide guitar, Sun Ra and a whole lotta Mellotron. But above all, Mad Skillet is a tale of New Orleans.
The quartet—featuring Medeski, guitarist Will Bernard and the legendary Dirty Dozen Brass Band rhythm section of sousaphonist Kirk Joseph and drummer Terence Higgins—is a product of the late-night sets that go down in the Crescent City during the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. For years during that annual festival-after-the-festival, Medeski would seek out gigs with Bernard, a fellow New York-based musician rooted in jazz but adept across genres. After traversing various players and configurations, the tandem hooked up with Joseph and Higgins, both of whom Medeski had met when he produced the Dirty Dozen’s 1999 record, Buck Jump. Fiery after-hours shows at spots like the Little Gem Saloon firmed up the band’s profoundly intuitive rapport.
“Something happens there. There’s something in the air, the water, the food,” says Medeski. “Every time we play, it really is magical. We get together and this thing lifts. It has a life of its own, beyond any of us. There’s a lot of ESP in New Orleans music. There’s a certain feel that New Orleans guys have that you can’t get anywhere else.”
Indeed, Mad Skillet—and their self-titled debut album released via Medeski Martin & Wood’s Indirecto Records—has an X factor that sets it apart from the rest of the hugely influential keyboardist’s remarkable discography. Medeski finds himself surrounded by an arsenal of vintage keys, deploying both well-honed chops and his rare gift for conjuring up soundscapes. Higgins digs into that elusive space shared between second line, swing, rock, funk, Afro-Cuban rhythms and hip-hop. Joseph, the scion of the late New Orleans lion Waldren “Frog” Joseph, holds down the low end with ingenious electronic enhancement as well as a power Medeski calls the “reality factor that comes through with the sousaphone: heart, mind, ears, breath.” As for Bernard, there’s “just something that happens to Will in New Orleans that is unexplainable,” Medeski says. Recorded at the Living Room, a studio housed in a Depression-era church straight across the Mississippi River from downtown New Orleans, Mad Skillet sees the guitarist showcase the range of his abilities and tones like never before. Medeski’s longtime friend and collaborator Scotty Hard provides invaluable sonic guidance at the mixing board.
While Medeski’s name is out front, the 9-track effort reflects a spirit of interplay and equality among members. Bernard contributes the sauntering soul of “Man About Town” and the rocking, Meters-esque workout “Little Miss Piggy.” Joseph offers “Adele,” whose compelling melodica tune evokes desert vistas and Ennio Morricone scores. Two spontaneous, in-studio ensemble creations, “Tuna in a Can” and “Psychedelic Rhino,” present a propulsive, engaging variation on the avant-garde. Sun Ra’s “The Golden Lady” is marked by atmospheric use of Medeski’s Mellotron bass-clarinet timbre and killer spy-movie guitar. The keyboardist’s tunes include “Invincible Bubble,” a cathartic tribute to his stepdaughter featuring Texas’ Brownout horns; “Piri Piri,” with its hip, rapid-fire unison lines; and “The Heart of Soul,” for MMW’s late booking agent Chip Hooper, with masterful slide guitar and hard-grooving R&B piano.
But more than a collection of tunes, Mad Skillet is about an energy and a city. “The hang before you play is just as important as the session,” Medeski explains. “You have to really be open to get to that place, to get to that vibration where it’s all coming together.”