John Medeski is always cooking up something interesting, and the ingredients in this project are inspired choices. This is the first album from Mad Skillet, a quartet with guitarist Will Bernard and two members of the Dirty Dozen Brass Band, drummer Terence Higgins and sousaphonist Kirk Joseph. It’s a bizarre and tasty stew of blues, R&B, psychedelic jazz, and everything New Orleans, from second-line marches to the space funk of Galactic.
This is one of the weirder records in Medeski’s catalog. It’s as out-there as Medeski Martin & Wood’s bizarre masterpiece The Dropper but as accessible and varied as their Radiolarians collection. Medeski brings a lot of his keyboards to bear: Hammond B-3, Fender Rhodes, Mellotron, piano, melodica—sometimes two or three of them on the same song, moving from one to another as the mood dictates. Bernard, too, changes styles as needed, from greasy soul jazz on “Man About Town” and straight-ahead blues on “The Heart of Soul” to spaghetti-western score on “Adele” and wacked-out fusion on “Psychedelic Rhino.” Higgins is game for whatever comes up, but his finest performance comes on “Tuna in a Can,” a wildly modern avant-garde funk tune that arose from improvisation in the studio.
Most important, the sousaphone doesn’t come off as a gimmick; Joseph treats it like any other bass, and only once or twice visits oompah-oompah territory. A guest slot from Brownout Horns spices up “Invincible Bubble” with extra punch, spurring Bernard to shred and Medeski to go to town on the organ. The only goof in an otherwise superb album is by Medeski himself, going overboard with a loud, droning bass clarinet sound from his Mellotron on a cover of Sun Ra’s “The Golden Lady.”