Medeski Martin & Wood and Alarm Will Sound have announced the release of a new collaborative 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.
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.
The album's seven-track program strikes an ideal balance, with original music by members of both groups, plus new AWS arrangements of two cuts off MMW's 'End of the World Party (Just in Case)'—the title track for which was is the album's first single premiered today at DownBeat (listen and share here). That 2004 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 (Just in Case)," 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 Stravinsky and 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 17, 2018 on limited edition 2-LP vinyl and digital formats.
1. "Kid Tao Mammal (Unworldliness Weirdo)"
2. "Anoymous Skulls"
3. "Coral Sea"
4. "Oh Ye Of Little Faith... (Do You Know Where Your Children Are?)"
5. "Eye Of Ra"
6. "Northern Lights"
7. "End Of The World Party (Just In Case)"