Medeski Martin & Wood with Alarm Will Sound – ‘Omnisphere’ (2018)

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The most combustible and rangy trio in NYC of the last twenty years expands into full orchestration. Omnisphere combines the nimble gumption of Medeski, Martin & Wood with the convention-busting modern creative twenty-person band Alarm Will Sound in a gutsy collaboration that was recorded live at Denver’s Newman Center in February, 2015.

Maybe we should have seen this coming; John Medeski, Billy Martin & Chris Wood had long shared a love for contemporary classical music that occasionally spilled over into their own music. And this is a group that, after all, has long ventured outside its comfort zone (assuming it has one) more than they stayed in it. Nonetheless, dramatically scaling up a idiosyncratic musical approach that had up to now had only relied on the interaction between three or four musicians required quite of bit of imagination and in Alarm Will Sound, they found the meeting of the musical minds needed to pull this off.

The temporary partnership works largely because MMW invested a lot of trust into the orchestra, incorporating originals from AWS members and having them handle arrangements that keenly incorporate the freewheeling vibe of MMW. Percussionist Payton MacDonald’s “Kid Tao Mammal (unworldliness weirdo)” allows the three to burrow its way into the consciousness until Medeski’s acid-drenched electric piano can’t be ignored and neither can Billy Martin’s roiling drum feature that breaks up the near-silence further down the line. “Northern Lights” was written by AWS bassist Miles Brown, who wrote it for both bands in mind and accordingly, it balances the trio jazz of the smaller unit and the grand, sweeping charts of the larger one.

There’s probably nothing here as sweeping as Medeski’s “Eye of Ra,” however. A sometimes violent clash of Western neo-classicalism and Downtown experimentation and even rock ‘n’ roll, it’s probably as close to a summation of all of Medeski’s influences as there is. AWS trumpeter Jason Price gave Martin’s “Coral Sea” a decidedly affecting treatment put squarely on the classical side of things, as is Caleb Burhan’s’ slowly unraveling “Oh Ye Of Little Faith… (Do You Know Where Your Children Are?).”

Two songs are drawn from MMW’s 2004’s release End of the World Party (Just in Case). “Anonymous Skulls” exemplifies the heady brand of soul jazz the threesome are known for with AWS making its presence known at strategic points. “End of the World Party (Just in Case)” is closer to a 50/50 collaboration, as the low strings of the orchestra swoop in at the opening theme to highlight the dark, funky theme of the song and wordless chants à la Kamasi Washington outline the harmony, allowing Medeski — and later, Wood — to leave behind some licks.

This is Medeski, Martin and Wood like you’ve never heard them before. A fair statement to make about a lot of their albums but this time, the ambition is as far as they’ve ever taken it. Omnisphere goes on sale September 14, 2018 through MMW’s own imprint Indirecto Records.


S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron is an SQL demon for a Fortune 100 company by day, music opinion-maker at night. His musings are strewn out across the interwebs on jazz.com, AllAboutJazz.com, a football discussion board and some inchoate customer reviews of records from the late 1990s on Amazon under a pseudonym that will never be revealed. E-mail him at [email protected] .com or follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SVictorAaron
S. Victor Aaron
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