Posted by Dale Obbie
Last Friday, pianist John Medeski of the jazz-funk trio Medeski, Martin & Wood joined the Lee Shaw Trio (Lee Shaw on piano, Jeff Siegel on drums and the college's faculty member Rich Syracuse on bass) to play a highly anticipated jazz show at the Zankel Music Center.
Before the first tune, the group captivated the audience with its easygoing poise. To begin the show, Medeski took to the stage alone.
With no more than a wave to the crowd, he sat down at his Hammond B3 organ and filled the hall with the heavy sound of its warbling chords.
After a little bit of free improvisation, drummer Siegel joined him, and soon the groove was underway. Not long after, Shaw appeared, followed by Syracuse, who walked leisurely to his upright bass, all the while bobbing his head to the beat.
The reason for their shared confidence is no mystery: Syracuse and Shaw have been playing together for 20 years, and Shaw began teaching Medeski the art of jazz improvisation in his early teens.
What this sort of familiarity among such accomplished musicians entails in the music is a limitless creative potential – the ability to play whatever they want on the spot.
On Friday they did just that. According to Syracuse, they hadn't decided upon a set list when they began the performance, but instead only "talked about concepts."
He went on to explain that "what we strive for in a very nonchalant way is that we save it all for the music … you have to imagine that the whole thing, the concert, is like running water. Like a river. And you walk up to the river and you jump in, and it carries you."
They opened with Duke Ellington's songs "Mood Indigo" and "Love You Madly," giving each soloist a chance to strut their stuff over the tunes' bluesy chord progressions. Even Shaw, now 84, didn't hesitate to show off her chops, playing with just as much vigor as her younger counterparts.
But, as expected, Medeski eventually took the spotlight. About half way through the performance he played a solo improvisation on the grand piano that showcased not only his command of melody, but of rhythm as well.
The sight of his percussive playing was as enthralling as its sound; his hands seemed to vibrate effortlessly above the keyboard, resembling balls of grease skidding along a frying pan.
In a significant departure from the standards with which they began, Medeski's flurries of notes led into his song "Where's Sly?" during which Shaw left the stage.
Unsurprisingly, the remaining trio had no trouble recreating the avant-garde texture of sound characteristic of Medeski, Martin & Wood. Syracuse strummed harmonics on his upright bass, while Siegel dragged his drumstick across the cymbals, resulting in a gloriously dissonant screech.
The next song, Shaw's "Prairie Child," featured a heartwarming duet between teacher and pupil. Medeski picked up his melodica (an instrument that lies somewhere between a harmonica and an organ) and stood at Shaw's side throughout the song.
Appropriately, the quirky instrument gave a lighthearted feel to a song that, as Shaw explained, is about her childhood, despite the fact that it lacks lyrics.
They concluded with another of Medeski's songs, the funky foot-stomper "Wiggly's Way," which was undoubtedly the highlight of the show.
It featured an outstanding bass solo from Syracuse, and left the audience hungry for an encore. And they weren't disappointed: the group closed with Shaw's tune "Blues 11," and left the stage to a standing ovation.