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Saint Disruption (featuring John Medeski)
2021-08-29 @ 8:00 pm
- 7PM DOORS / 8PM SHOW
- ALL AGES
- STANDING ROOM ONLY
Jeff Firewalker Schmitt, PhD and John Medeski (Medeski Martin & Wood) met in 2008 deep inside the Amazon rainforests of Ecuador. They were both visiting a renowned healer, a shaman named don Cesario from the Secoya Tribe, for very different reasons. Jeff was there on an ethno-botanical exploration while John was in search of healing. What he described as a “crazy medical anomaly” had taken John off the road, causing him to cancel a tour for the first time in his storied career as a keyboardist and improviser. “I went down to work with the Secoya and get healed by them, using plant spirit medicine” says John, “and Jeff was there, from another angle, and we met and connected.”
This jungle encounter would become the seed for Saint Disruption, but it would take more than a decade and a global pandemic to bring this music and this band to life. Over the years John and Jeff had kept in loose touch, bonding over their shared devotion to indigenous cultures, ancient wisdom, music and the natural world, but it never felt like a working relationship. Jeff had no space to create music, he had a thriving career first as an Oxford trained Molecular Biophysicist, research scientist, and teacher (he held professorships at Wake Forest University of Medicine in Biochemistry and Physiology-Pharmacology and was Director of Research for the Center for Integrative Medicine), and also as a Peruvian trained Curandero (a healer who uses folk remedies, a shaman).
But then again Jeff has always engaged in diverse pursuits, straddling multiple worlds. Jeff came from a rough place, he calls it a “broken home,” and education got him out of there. “From the very youngest age I appeared to have a photographic memory and an unusual capacity to understand science,” he says, “so much so that I had blasted through a bunch of college science textbooks by the time I was 10 years old. I was on the way to getting in a lot of trouble, and when I was 13, I had a guidance counselor suggest that I take the SATs.”
Jeff did pretty well on that test. So well that he skipped high school and started college at age 14. By the time he was 15 he was working with a famous scientist running a research lab and was being published in prestigious academic journals (to date he has over 100 publications and patents to his name). He was also experimenting with drugs and playing rock & roll music, showing enough promise as a drummer that his band opened up for John Lee Hooker and with another band produced an album with R.E.M. producer Mitch Easter that yielded a borderline hit in Canada.
“Fast forward to my work as a Curandero,” says Jeff. “I recognized one day that I had to leave science because it wasn’t my soul’s purpose. I built this huge career as a distraction for dealing with my core wound. It was a huge epiphany for me. I realized that one of the reasons our world is so fucked up is because there are so many highly accomplished folks covering their wounds just as I did.”
Jeff was always deeply immersed in Chinese philosophy and is a martial arts master. “I thought that was my spiritual access and home,” Jeff continues, “and it wasn’t until I was, right around 40, that, through a happenstance, I met a Curandero and at that point my life changed almost instantly.”
In 2004 Jeff began his journey as a folk healer, Tabaquero, and practitioner of plant medicine. He had found his calling. That is until 2020, Covid and George Floyd. With the world hiding from the novel coronavirus and America convulsing with racial tension, Jeff did what he normally does when big things are happening, he went to the altar and asked Spirit for guidance.
“The message I received was crazy,” says Jeff. “Spirit told me, ‘Jeff, your job now is to take everything you’ve learned, and seen, and felt as a Curandero over the past two decades and put it to poetry and music.’ This message I heard, it was a sledgehammer. It wasn’t subtle.”
Outside of singing in ceremony and a stint playing in Asheville’s once thriving Kirtan scene, Jeff had put music away. Music was not the plan. But this is how Jeff lives his life. He listens to powers greater than his own. If Spirit sends him a message he is not ignoring it, and just as his life changed when a guidance counselor got him to take the SATs at 13 and when he met the Curandero that would become his teacher, now Jeff’s life changes again. Now he’s making music. Deeply soulful, highly intentional, funky, emotionally stacked music that does what all great art does, it connects us to something more.
“I knew I was not meant to do this by myself,” says Jeff, “that this had to be a sacred medicine journey. And two themes emerged as I affirmed my alliance with traditional medicine and approaches, one of them was ‘find people that understand what I’m being called to do,’ and two, ‘whenever possible go back to the seed.’”
The first is where John Medeski comes in. Not only is he one of the most respected, in-demand and talented keyboardist/piano players of his generation, he’s also committed to his own spiritual practice. He comprehends ‘sourcing’ inspiration from the place of heart and soul. He understands Jeff and the world he operates in. “We share this connection of music and then also this connection to South American indigenous ways,” explains John, who has been studying and working with healers from earth-based traditions in the americas for over 15 years. This is part of the parallel paths that Jeff and John have been traveling, and just as Jeff has been engrossed in his work as a Curandero, John and his wife have created a non-profit organization focused on plant spirit medicine where they offer classes, workshops and retreats.
Jeff knew that John would be the perfect collaborator, but first he had to go back further. “The idea of going back to the origin is where Umar Bin Hassan came in,” says Jeff. “So much of what was bubbling to the surface for me was about oppression and how the power of truth has been hidden or concealed, and I had this notion to go back to the people who were first putting the emotions of the struggle into poetry and music, and that was Umar Bin Hassan and The Last Poets. And it was just a feeling, I had to collaborate with him.” It took a few weeks to track him down and a few more weeks to get him to agree to a conversation, but like most people who meet Jeff, Umar felt a connection and was compelled to collaborate.
Umar gave Jeff a very personal, raw poem about child abuse and persecution. He trusted him with a precious piece of himself and basically told Jeff not to ‘fuck it up.’ “He was like an elder who put me on-point,” says Jeff, “he gave me something significant and he wanted me to honor that.”
Jeff took Umar’s words and created the beat and tonal framework for the song that would become “Painstorms,” this was Jeff’s inspiration to approach John. John was a longtime Last Poets fan as well, so he was intrigued, but it was really Jeff’s treatment of the song, the weird beat and lo-fi vibe, that drew him in. And then something kind of magical happened. Instead of playing the piano part Jeff had written out or what he thought Jeff was looking for, John was inspired to play what he felt. One of the reasons John is such a highly desired collaborator is his ability to deliver what artists are looking for in the classic “Medeski style,” but rarely is he being asked to tap the depths of his own creativity. But with Saint Disruption that is exactly what John is being asked to do. The power of this music comes from both Jeff and John getting in touch with their deepest, most genuine inspirations and expressions. It was Jeff’s immediate understanding of this, and how it was encouraged and how it manifested in his first collaboration with John on “Painstorms,” that would lay the foundation for their working relationship.
The body of work that followed challenges and provokes the listener. This is music forged by artists not afraid to peer into the fertile darkness. It’s easy to lose people when you start talking about Spirit or God, and there is great risk in people misunderstanding what is so hard to articulate, but spirituality in music is nothing new. Be it for the artist or the fan, tapping into another realm is arguably at the core of all great art, and to ignore or shy away from the intention and origin of Saint Disruption’s music would be to miss the entire point.
“There is a whole spiritual jazz movement, post Coltrane and Pharoah Sanders, but who is actually living that life?” asks John. “That’s part of it, Jeff is really living that life. In our house we really live that life. There’s a Western misconception of what that means; it’s not disappearing into the mountains and shaving your head, there’s a way of living life as part of a community, and that’s what I’m feeling with Saint Disruption. It’s nice to have all these things come together in a certain way, and then there’s the music. It’s not fluffy spiritual music sounds, it’s raw and deep.”
There is nothing fluffy about the album these two, along with a cast of talented, mostly Asheville, NC based artists, including local Grammy winners Agent 23 and Debrissa McKinney, multi-instrumentalist and producer Michael Hynes, Austn Haynes of Free Radio and a rising powerhouse vocalist named Datrian Johnson, have created. “Rose In The Oblivion” is timeless and timely. Just as much about ancient struggles as current conditions. It’s born from the world of spirits but void of the trappings often found surrounding that terrain. “I’m not looking for spiritual music,” says John, “I’m looking for Spirit to come through.”
Maybe that’s the best way to describe Saint Disruption: A burgeoning musical collective that Spirit moves through. But how does one summon and harness Spirit? How do you get Spirit to come through your music? “Jeff has this inspiration and this dream, he receives the message and then he just does it, he comes up with lyrics and music from that” says John.
That’s basically how this works. The brilliant scientist-come-Curandero, who hasn’t made music in decades mind you, gets quiet enough to connect with Spirit and then this amazing, evocative music appears. And when Jeff says he intends for this music to have a massive impact on humanity, he not only means it, he believes it is going to happen. He believes it already is happening. This isn’t about Jeff. Just like his work as a Curandero, he’s not doing the healing, he’s a vessel to bring that healing in. This world class music that has the potential to be in the class of legends, isn’t coming out of Jeff, it’s coming through him, and that makes all the difference. “He does the work and then creates the music” explains John. “If you think it’s all about you and you are creating it, then the music has one frequency, and that frequency vibrates on a lower level because it’s strangled by ego and cut off from the deeper, higher vibrations, but if you think it’s bigger and it’s about more than you, then it can be.”