Medeski, Martin & Wood don’t play live together very often these days or issue many new albums, so when they do it’s a special pleasure, in part because the trio invariably treats such occasions with all due elegance. Recorded live at The Newman Center in Denver, Colorado in February 2015, Omnisphere is indeed such a rare piece, fusing the forward-thinking threesome’s openness to spontaneity with the formality and structure of contemporary classical music supplied by Alarm Will Sound.
Available in digital form and double vinyl LP (no CD) on MMW’s Indirecto label, this idiosyncratic creative expression is a true collaboration. The dual approaches of the two ensembles complement each other and fuse into one over the course of this seventy-plus minutes. Musicianship, arrangement and performance become integrated in an equitable whole within which both units retain their respective identities (though none of this sounds as earthy as Medeski, Martin and Wood’s early work such as Shackman).
Striking another ideal balance in the seven-track program, original music by members of both groups, such as bassist Miles Brown’s “Northern Lights,” resides next to new AWS arrangements of two cuts off MMW’s End of the World Party (Just in Case). With real instrumental and vocal orchestrations in lieu of John Medeski’s keyboards, one of that pair, “Anonymous Skulls,” sounds even more foreboding than its 2004 recording. Meanwhile “Coral Sea” sets up a logical segue into “Oh Ye of Little Faith…(Do You Know Where Your Children Are?),” the resulting extended interval so eerie and sparse, it’s almost unsettling to hear.
But it does remain listenable for the duration, if perhaps in too cerebral a fashion. Nevertheless, a surprising, perhaps even startling immediacy arises from Omnisphere before it’s over, due in large part to a track sequencing that replicates the live-in-concert drive to a forceful conclusion. For instance, AWS percussionist Payton McDonald’s, “Kid Tao Mammal (Unworldliness Weirdo),” swings, literally, from grand crescendos to near-silence. Although such near-physical presence is in keeping with the engrossing cover art, Omnisphere is not so rhythm-oriented as MMW projects past, but rather more akin to the esoteric Radiolarians: the contributions of bassist Chris Wood and percussionist Billy Martin are similarly sublimated in the mix.
Like that unconventional 2008-2009 series, however, Omnisphere stands as a reminder of what a valuable creative resource are Medeski Martin and Wood, not to mention how humble they remain in collaboration with other artists. Such virtues present all the more reason(s) to keep paying attention to what they do, whenever and with whomever they decide to get back together and do it again.