Omnisphere, the new album from Medeski Martin & Wood with Alarm Will Sound, 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,” says the keyboardist John Medeski. “How they are, for their universe, very much like us.”
Recorded live in Colorado in February 2015, Omnisphere fulfills a long-held aspiration for Medeski, drummer-percussionist Billy Martin and bassist Chris Wood. “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 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). 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 the title track, 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 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.
Formed in New York City in 1991, Medeski Martin & Wood became one of improvised music’s greatest crossover successes throughout the next decade. Marrying elements of funk, hip-hop and rock with a foundation in jazz and the avant-garde, MMW’s nonstop touring and inspired studio and live recordings, on labels like Gramavision, Blue Note and their own Indirecto imprint, gained them a loyal, wide-ranging following. Prior to the Indirecto release of Omnisphere, their most recent effort was Juice, the latest document in a landmark partnership with guitarist John Scofield. “This is a band that has earned the right to do whatever it wants and hasn’t remotely run out of options,” writes the New York Times.
As the New Yorker puts it, “The new-music ensemble Alarm Will Sound has developed a casually dynamic style that is like Kronos gone orchestral.” Established in 2001 by a cohort from the Eastman School of Music, AWS has deftly and steadily worked to change the perception of what a small contemporary-music orchestra can be. Programming might include multimedia, daring onstage choreography or a live podcast taping. Repertoire could signify anything from Ligeti and Nancarrow to Aphex Twin, the Shaggs and a breathtakingly precise rendition of the Beatles’ “Revolution 9.” The ensemble’s collaborators have included the likes of Steve Reich, John Adams, Dirty Projectors, Björk and now Medeski Martin & Wood—a surprising alliance but also, somehow, an utterly natural one. “We have a certain connection that’s like family,” Medeski says, “and they’re like a family, so it’s like these two families coming together.”