The first time he saw California’s jacaranda tree, guitarist and composer Laurent Medelgi was entranced. Such an aromatic and colorful experience could only lead to one thing: composing songs to fit its striking beauty.
His sixth CD with the Medeljazz Quartet was just released in February. The easy-going “Scale it Up” has smooth guitar work with a light touch. The curiously named “Bony the Cat” has an unhurried, sweet feel. Yet “A Wolf in Spain” is the standout track, with its cool vibe and air of mystery. Medelgi introduces unexpected changes (we agree to come along; is the wolf on the prowl or looking for sustenance?), with a new beat that lends a stronger pulse. The solo on electric piano is ornate and complex. Medelgi’s back in, and subtly brings us sky-high in pitch. The song is capped off with a final quickened riff that ends on a clever suspended arpeggio, reinforcing questions it didn’t answer.
Your main influence on guitar?
Okay, so that’s a tough one. I love the so-called traditional players such as Wes Montgomery, George Benson or even Pat Martino but I also really enjoy the newer ones: Kurt Rosenwinkel, Jonathan Kreisberg or Mike Moreno, for example. I guess my playing is somewhat a reflection of those various influences.
What was the turning point where you decided on a serious career in music?
When I tried to quit after my “rockscapade” in Britain after not getting that infamous record deal. Proved to be a serious mistake, leaving my spirit to wander aimlessly on the face of the Earth. Before it was too late, I moved back to England to pick up where I’d left off.
I knew then that it was going to be both a blessing and a curse: knowing what you love to do is a blessing but not being able to do anything else can be difficult at times.
What inspired the CD “Jacaranda Jazz” and how has it been received?
To be honest it was my last trip to L.A. where I discovered the jacaranda tree. Vibrant colors of purple and a beautiful fragrance. When I found out about its healing properties and that it was used to make guitar fingerboards, the parallel seemed obvious with the music I write for the Medeljazz Quartet. So far, the feedback has been amazing: we have new fans daily from all over the world. It’s really cool that this music can appeal to people who are not particularly sensitive to or well-versed in jazz. One of my goals is always to reach for what is universal to all of us.
What was the most memorable part of making it?
How obvious every track seemed to come to me. Even though the tunes vary strongly from one to the other, I feel there is a common theme and sound throughout the record. Maybe because the mixing process was so arduous (it took several months) but I’m pretty happy with how I mixed and mastered the CD. Sound and production are such personal matters of taste; it can be a real challenge to achieve the overall quality you’re after.
What drove the order of the tracks?
I definitely wanted to open with “Scale It Up.” To me the tune embodies all the qualities of “Jacaranda Jazz”: hip modern harmonies and a melody which stays with you after the first listen. Then I decided to draw a dramatic arch, going from softer, slower sounds to more modern and energetic ones. That’s why “Honey Groove” is the last track!
Is there an overall theme you are going for?
You know how we often associate a place or a sound with a color or scent? This is what happened to me with the jacaranda. I wanted to emulate these equations between the senses.
Talk about your quartet members.
We have the great Nico Fabre on keys. Yes, you probably noticed there is no piano on the record. Electric piano and organ only. This choice also defines the sound of the quartet and Nico does a lot for it.
Our rhythm section features Elisabeth Keledjian on drums and François Poitou on upright bass. They work very well together with a sensibility and particular attention to dynamics.
How long did it take for your ensemble to work so well together?
Actually, we had a bunch of bass players come through who didn’t work out until François joined us. Then it just clicked almost immediately. Sometimes magic happens!
“Wolf in Spain” is very pretty and lyrical. How did you come to write it?
Thank you so much! I do have a special attachment for the “Wolf in Spain.”
Funny…when this melody outlining the chord progression came to me, I immediately pictured a wolf strolling, alert and casing out his surroundings. My totem animal is the wolf, a Shaman told me in Chile. And when the tune was written, the slight Espanol Harmony is what gave the uncanny name to the song. Yes, I am very fond of this tune.
How does your earlier funk ensemble Gotham compare with your music today?
Well that takes us back a few, circa 1994! I always loved a phat groove and playing in the pocket, but I guess I grew up a bit since then from an embryo to a teen, maybe! It was my first full- fledged record in the US. It was a great experience, where I got to arrange some of the horn charts. Along the years which led me to making “Jacaranda Jazz”, my experience with funk and groove was enhanced by playing in lots of different situations from Latin to pure funk to gospel.
To me, jazz and funk groove are inseparable. They go hand in hand.
What was it like to play for Broadway productions?
We always played live and that’s the beauty of it. Great and intense experience, where I learned so much about the place of the guitar in a 20-plus piece band; what works and what doesn’t with a special attention to accuracy and intention.
Day in, day out, eight shows a week, those guys and gals deliver no matter what. They are true professionals and I am very fortunate to have worked with such talent.
What are the challenges to staying sharp (no pun intended) when you have a rigorous performance schedule?
First and foremost, I would say it is essential to look after the body and of course the mind. I like to do yoga when on tour and hit the gym and the bubbles (the spa) so even with the jet lag and fatigue, I can still give my best. Then I try to stay out of my own way and let the music work its magic.
Every show is a new opportunity to explore and open up the tunes.
Do you prefer small intimate venues or large concert halls?
Actually, I love both. I find solace in small venues and love the energy and feel of a big crowd. I played in Finland in front of 10,000 and that was a rush!!!
How often do you record new projects with your quintet, and, with Brasillusions?
I like to focus on what’s on hand right now. So Brasillusions has been put on hold for now and so has the quintet. If it were up to me I would put out a new record every month! But I like to dig deep into the sound before daring to freeze music in time, having to live with the result forever!
What do you appreciate most about 1970s funk?
I love the groove!
How is jazz coming from NYC different in flavor from European jazz?
I think there is a major difference; NYC jazz is fiery, daring and emotionally driven. You play like it’s the last time. There is a definite urgency.
European jazz for the most part is intellectually driven and derived, not so much from seeking the most powerful emotional impact but from seeking the flashy and technical/mechanical exploits of the instrumentalist.
On many occasions I’ve walked out of a performance where named players (calling themselves “professors”) did all but re-heat and serve you the most cliché bebop licks with no soul. Sorry, but I can’t take it.
I think, however Sc,andinavian jazz has really found its own voice with exciting and innovative music coming from there.
What is your favorite guitar?
Mine! I play a Gibson ES 135. I really like it although there is probably a guitar better suited for my playing out there.
Do you have a favorite mode or time signature?
I enjoy playing in 7.
Also, I made my own mode, the “Medelgian” mode. Ready?
1 b9 #9 3 #4 #5 6 7.
If anyone out there has ever encountered this scale please let me know and I will give up the rights to this mode!
Explain the presence of jazz at the United Nations, and how you became connected with it.
Basically, I just spoke to the very nice people at Protocole and dropped off a demo of Latinamour, my Latin jazz trio. They loved us and hired us eight years in a row to play their biggest reception, hosting 120 country representatives!
What is the most exciting thing about being a jazz musician today?
Freedom! Evolving and exploring the ever-changing ways of making music. Creating your own sound and vision. And no one can tell you how to do it!
Where will you perform or tour this year?
Paris, Berlin and London for sure since my label is partly based in the UK. Also we are currently booking dates for the summer and fall in NY, Miami and LA: what I like to call the perfect triangle!
Where would you most like to play that you have not yet been?
Japan, the Blue Note in Tokyo. (I have played the one in NYC and that was a blast!). Also the Newport Jazz Festival and Jazz a Vienne.
I think it is vital now more than ever to keep true genuine human music alive. Seems machines are slowly replacing the human heart and we must be alert to the process and fight back by making live music even in the studio.
With “Jacaranda Jazz,” that is what we did: no overdubs, mostly one or two takes and here you have it!
For more information, visit www.zorojazz.wixsite.com/lmedelgi.