Medeski Martin & Wood with Alarm Will Sound have announced the release of a new album, ‘Omnisphere,’ due September 14 via MMW’s own imprint, Indirecto Records. The collection poses a compelling question: What would happen if one of the most adventurous groups to emerge in jazz and improvised music in the last three decades were to join up with an orchestra that counts among the boldest forces in contemporary classical? The results are both expected, in the peerless level of the musicianship, and stunning, in the sweeping stylistic range of the program. But more than anything, ‘Omnisphere’ speaks to the respect and creative kinship shared between these two trailblazing ensembles.
“The more we worked together, the more I realized how perfect this is. How they are, for their universe, very much like us,” says keyboardist John Medeski. “We have a certain connection that’s like family and they’re like a family, so it’s like these two families coming together.”
Recorded live at The Newman Center in Denver, Colorado in February 2015, Omnisphere fulfills a long-held aspiration for Medeski, drummer-percussionist Billy Martin and bassist Chris Wood. In the earliest days of the band, they would often listen to classical and chamber music as a source of musical inspiration, conceptualizing the idea of how to merge their freewheeling improvisational jazz explorations with the more composed approach of orchestral music.
“We had a collection of over 500 CDs, and that’s what got us through,” Martin said onstage in Denver, recalling MMW’s early road-warrior years. “And there was a lot of chamber music, contemporary classical music: Ligeti, Feldman, Sun Ra even. So sharing that and now we’re here, it’s a dream come true, and we love it.” For Alarm Will Sound, the feelings were mutual. “We knew we had a winner of an idea,” says Alan Pierson, the ensemble’s artistic director and conductor. “A number of [our musicians] have really idolized Medeski Martin & Wood for years, and so there was a lot of excitement in the group.”
The seven-track program on ‘Omnisphere’ strikes an ideal balance, with original music by members of both groups, plus new AWS arrangements of two cuts off MMW’s 2004 release, ‘End of the World Party (Just in Case).’ The title track from that collection is the first single from ‘Omnisphere’ premiered yesterday at DownBeat and can be heard below. It will be available this Friday, August 17 at all DSPs. The original release featured the trio’s trademark avant-grooves underneath an array of keyboards—including plenty of Mellotron—with pop-savvy production by the Dust Brothers’ John King. On these reinventions of “End of the World Party,” arranged by cellist Stefan Freund, and “Anonymous Skulls,” arranged by violinist Courtney Orlando, the album’s atmospheric replicas of strings and choir are made real through Alarm Will Sound’s rich orchestral tapestry. Think of classic soul-jazz-with-strings LPs, though on another plateau of insight and imagination.
Martin’s “Coral Sea,” given an impressionistic arrangement by founding AWS trumpeter Jason Price, explores “colors and hues and nuance—all these things that are barely there,” the composer says. Medeski’s offering, “Eye of Ra,” is a 20-minute tour-de-force that reflects the panoramic scope of his influences and experience—from shades of Stravinskyand Shostakovich that underscore his training at New England Conservatory, to rollicking, hard-grooving sections that summon up the NYC downtown scene.
The lead-off composition, “Kid Tao Mammal (Unworldliness Weirdo),” was commissioned for the project and written by founding AWS percussionist Payton MacDonald, and it sets the pace for the beyond-genre music to follow: speedy, cresting waves of strings and woodwinds, with startling punches of brass; funky rhythms bolstering Medeski’s psychedelic electric piano; an ambient, near-dissonant section split open by Martin’s drum solo; a thrilling finale. Other works composed by AWS personnel include multi-instrumentalist Caleb Burhans’ “Oh Ye of Little Faith…(Do You Know Where Your Children Are?),” which evokes the gorgeously emotive, slow-burning side of the Minimalists; and Miles Brown’s cyclical, noirish “Northern Lights,” named in part after the Detroit lounge where the bassist had a regular jazz-trio gig. Onstage, Brown called his contribution “an opportunity for me to write for my band, and for a band that I’ve been listening to for a long time that I know could handle some improvisation. Just a little bit,” he added, chuckling.
Medeski Martin & Wood w/ Alarm Will Sound’s ‘Omnisphere’ is out September 14, 2018 on limited edition 2-LP vinyl and digital formats. Pre-Order is available here.