For his debut solo piano recording-also the first release on the newly revived OKeh label, now a Sony imprint-John Medeski does something of a 180. Performed on a 1924 French Gaveau piano in an old church in upstate New York, late at night so as to minimize ambient noise from the outside world, the nine ruminative improvisations and compositions bear virtually no resemblance to the familiar organ-based groove-funk of Medeski Martin and Wood.
It’s not entirely unfamiliar territory for Medeski, though; he’s performed solo piano concerts, and played Gregory Rogove’s compositions on the multi-instrumentalist’s collection of solo piano works, Piana. The surprise is in the utter placidity of the music, the absence not only of loud but also of edge. Medeski willingly sets aside his innate experimental tendencies on this outing, taming his frolicsome nature to instead expose the sheer grace and sparkle the instrument afforded him.
And he does find power within the stillness. “Waiting at the Gait,” a song Medeski wrote in his teens and never performed before, is simple but not primitive, and “Ran,” the album’s sole through-composed piece and the only one that flirts with dissonance, draws strength from its pauses as well as its off-center melody. “Otis,” the finale, isn’t all that far in mood from the version that appeared on MMW’s debut album more than two decades ago, but it’s also undeniably the work of a more mature musician who’s learned the value of pacing and restraint. The two covers, the spiritual “His Eye Is on the Sparrow” and Willie Nelson’s “I’m Falling in Love Again,” are also pastoral beauts, the latter so tender and springy you might think you’re listening to an old-time music box.