Monday, December 15, 2008

Medeski Martin & Wood - "Whatever Happened to Gus" From the Album Combustication

Medeski Martin & Wood Combustication CD coverA postbop dreamstate, a figment of rotgut bourbon and scotch, a scrapple in the Apple on a bright sunny morning that exists only in some jazz poet's crazy-ass mind.

Zoot suits and porkpie hats, and cigarette butts, way back when, about Bird and Roach, figure 8 jam-sessions locked tight, chasing that shit hard, only you couldn't figure what the hell Bird was doing with his arms around Wynton Marsalis' shoulders. Saxophone cases resting against the brownstone walls, left empty in the bebop hallucination, everyone's split. All culminating in the perfect beatific vision, scads and scads of these fantastic jazz musicians, one after the other, descending into the City, rows upon rows of them, all dressed in coat and tie and dark sunglasses, hustling and running across the Brooklyn Bridge.

And say, man, you got the key?

After you tip your hat to narrator Steve Cannon (and without offense toward Chris Wood's very athletic bass-playing), you find that the key to this very fine, very historically-oriented, and very very freaky tune is John Medeski's mellotron. And just like Cannon says, that's when I did my research.

For those of you who have long since forgotten or even never knew Days of Future Passed or In the Court of the Crimson King, the mellotron was one of the earliest polyphonic keyboard synthesizers, being introduced in the mid '60's, and seeing some of its most prominent usage on the two proto-prog gems just mentioned.

The M400 mellotron we're talking about, the one that became popular within the nascent progressive rock movement, and the type that Medeski owns today, was electro-mechanical, which basically refers to how undeneath each of the 35 keys is a miniature tape head and roller. Each time you depress a key, 8 seconds of music plays. Then the tape rewinds, ready for the next time you depress the key above it again.

and there was this one cat who looked just like Lester Young,  then his image kept changing, then he started looking like Billy Eckstine, then back to Lester, then Billy,  then Les,  then BillyThe factory preloaded its mellotrons with a choice of three sounds: strings, cello, or an 8-voice choir. But the thing about the M400 that endeared itself to musicians, and continues to, is that its tapes came in a removeable frame, meaning that artists could, with a certain amount of labor, switch away from the preloaded to sounds to those they themselves created.

Listening to the tune, and reading about the mellotron just now, Medeski is undoubtedly using tapes of his own creation on "Whatever Happened to Gus." But there's another thing going on with the wobbly, freaky, eerie background behind the slaphappy double bass. Evidently, the M400 had a flywheel that powered each of the keyboard's 35 tape reels. And evidently, Medeski has removed the lid from his mellotron so that he can reach into the machine while playing and retard or even stop the motion of the flywheel to get the fluttery distorted sound of his most current whim.

There's a picture of Medeski's mellotron here, if you're interested.

Now, nowhere did I read that Medeski used his mellotron on "Whatever Happened to Gus." But having listened, and having read, I'd bet dollars to donuts that the keening, wobbling, wailing chorus you hear as support through much of the track is exactly that: John Medeski slowing down and speeding up the tapes on his mellotron to better craft the band's soundtrack to Steve Cannon's strange jazzbo poem about the men who used to play back in the day--even the ones whose names you don't remember.

Medeski Martin & Wood - Combustication - 6 - Whatever Happened to Gus.mp3

This file was removed January 27, 2009. If you're still way interested in coming up with a copy of this--and really can't figure out where you might get one--drop me an email and I'm sure I'll be able to figure something out for you.

File Under: Jazz for Druggies

1 comment:

rastronomicals said...

Full disclosure: although I kind of like "Peak Hour," I don't REALLY think Days of Future Passed is a "gem."