As depicted on their studio debut Rose in the Oblivion, the vision of keyboard wizard John Medeski and spiritual folk healer Jeff Firewalker Schmitt is multi-faceted indeed. No more abstract than The Purge, the former’s previous partnership with drummer Adam Deitch and horn-man Skerik called DRKWAV, its approach to rhythm is just as pronounced as on MAGO, his 2006 duo piece with MMW percussionist Billy Martin.
The seven cuts are a mosaic of ideas with a total duration of roughly twenty-eight minutes. Individual cuts such as “Flight-19” pass in flashes of sonic imagery, vivid corollary to the book of visual art inspired by and accompanying the album. Instead of mechanical beats and hip-hop rhymes, a deliberate acoustic piano is prominent on “Painstorms; ” recalling the spoken word segments on the avant-funk trio’s albums, its extended instrumental interlude turns it into one of the most engrossing pieces here, along with the ghostly recitation of the closing “Thief of Darkness.”
With lyrics on the former supplied by Umar Bin Hassan of The Last Poets—who also appears on “Stories (Birth of Saint Disruption)”– it’s no coincidence a more direct stylistic homage to the latter group’s 1970’s fusion of poetry and music works in much the same quietly hypnotic way. Vocals from Boston-based musician Lyric Jones and Austin Haynes of Free Radio dominate “Last Poet First’ / “Ukhupacha,” a cut almost twice as long as another overt societal commentary, “Instant Gratification,” where verbiage from Schmitt telegraphs the intended message as (over-)obviously as the title of “Choke A Man.”
Still, gospel-tinged vocal harmonies, like the twisting electric guitar of Duane Simpson, render these two tracks much denser than most of Rose in the Oblivion. And the layering is purposeful, indicative of the patience Medeski and Firewalker expended to work together on a remote basis more than a decade after their first meeting. Co-producing with Michael Hynes, Schmitt may be the fundamental catalyst and subliminal focal point for Rose in the Oblivion, but it’s the psychic and spiritual chemistry between him and his brilliant principal collaborator that imbues this effort with its intrinsic sense of focus.