Medeski Martin & Wood Enter the ‘Omnisphere’

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Drummer Billy Martin (left), keyboardist John Medeski and bassist Chris Wood all have recording projects outside of their trio.

(Photo: Jimmy & Dena Katz)

“Several of our members were huge fans of Medeski Martin & Wood, including bassist Miles Brown, who has a jazz background, and percussionist Matt Smallcomb,” said the upbeat Pierson. “I was thinking of the incredible energy and creativity that the three of them put out onstage and their extraordinary levels of spontaneity, fire and ideas. I was excited to hear how Alarm Will Sound would riff with and respond to that.”

It was through Peter Robles, curator and director of Serious Media Music, that Medeski first connected with Alarm Will Sound. The keyboardist was impressed with the collective spirit of the group: Each member had a stake in the decision-making and creative processes.

“It reminded me of how we started out; none of us were invested in leadership,” the keyboardist said. “Billy, Chris and I had a democratic attitude toward the band and a collective-improvisation aesthetic.”

Pierson perceived an opportunity.

“The range of ways MMW are capable of working, I could see would stretch AWS and expand the way we create,” he said. “The three of them came in for a workshop with us. We all brought material and we started to work with a mixture of written-out pieces and improvised, back and forth, to see how we could best bridge the experience.”

Given the prohibitive cost of having 20 busy musicians rehearse, despite Watt’s generous $75,000 windfall, the project was hung on a brace of gigs in Colorado, the second of which, at the Newman Center in Denver, ultimately would be captured for posterity by engineer Steven Vidau on Feb. 5, 2015.

The resultant album is unlike anything in the extensive MMW discography, which includes more than 20 titles. Hints of the trio diving headlong into abstraction, though, emerged on the Radiolarians trilogy, issued in 2008 and 2009. But those who embrace the band’s restless musical quest will welcome Omnisphere and be duly curious.

Perhaps the most audacious opus on the album is Medeski’s epic “Eye Of Ra,” some 60 pages of score that runs just shy of 20 minutes—a full side of the 33rpm LP. It begins with some of the eerie foreboding of Bernard Herrmann’s When the Earth Stood Still score; sparse primal drumbeats, a dial tone, and interstellar blips and beeps persist through a galaxy of textures that maintain an equilibrium.

A lot of the effects emanate from Medeski’s keyboard cornucopia, but there are gamelan noises, and castanet scuttles that conjure scarab beetles inside an Egyptian sarcophagus—the work of Smallcomb, Chris Thompson and Martin—then oboe-, bassoon- and string-fusings manage to mimic theremins. Without warning, Wood and bassist Miles Brown then kick into reverberant surf-rock and grunge riffing.

Medeski digs in feverishly, as shards of descending lines periodically are hurled into the maelstrom by Alarm Will Sound. Finally, the players decide to destroy everything with a violent, slashing deconstruction, and the ancient-to-future temple implodes.

“I was shocked and surprised by where John took the piece,” Pierson said. “It was not what I expected. It began crunchy and new music-y and then filled in with unexpected gestures, quirky surprises that made more sense over time. It was really broad in outlook and yet understated with flute against bass drum, and then duet for Hammond and oboe.”

The song title “Eye Of Ra” nods to the Afro-galactic ambitions of Sun Ra—one of Medeski’s chief influences—and the mythological Eye of Horus.

Medeski studied classical composition at the New England Conservatory of Music, which might surprise devotees of his greasier work. He was as sold on Olivier Messiaen and Charles Ives as Jimmy McGriff and Larry Young, and anyone who has caught his solo acoustic piano performances realizes his talents are expansive. He was attracted to the Third Stream department at NEC and wasn’t necessarily impressed with the prevalent jazz scene when he moved to New York in the late ’80s.

“Sessions often consisted of horn players lined up like zombies, whacking off, not interacting. It sounded like jazz, but wasn’t really creative to me,” he recalled. Medeski soon gravitated to the so-called “downtown” scene of progressive musicians, which included frequent collaborator John Zorn.

Shortly before his phone conversation with DownBeat, Medeski had been performing Zorn compositions over three nights with three different groups in Portugal, including Simulacrum, a heavy metal organ trio with guitarist Matt Hollenberg and drummer Kenny Grohowski, who’ve recorded on Zorn’s Tzadik imprint.

“John is the enlightened dictator—he’s very clear about what he wants, very quick to make decisions,” Medeski said about collaborating with the demanding musician and composer. “Like Mingus or Ellington, he pulls people out of their zones and encourages them to do more than they would do on their own.”

Martin, a native New Yorker, originally was involved in the Brazilian music scene through a connection with drum sage Bob Moses and was drawn to the less formulaic music of John Lurie’s Lounge Lizards, and such intellectual originals as reedist Ned Rothenberg. Martin dove deep into the scene and, Zorn-like, eventually began composing with specific configurations of musicians in mind.

Of the trio, Martin is possibly the most effective in codifying and disseminating his concepts; his Amulet label released Mago, a ferocious 2006 duo album with Medeski, and recently an intriguing solo effort, Disappearing, featuring a gloriously out of tune piano, prepared with bamboo, alligator clips and bells.

Essential understanding of his reflective bent and unique take on life and music education can be found in the pages of his 2014 book, Wandering, published through Amulet, which also released a companion compilation of interpretations of his graphic scores and other arranged pieces.

Martin’s acclaimed DVD Life On Drums further explains the unique notation system he’s devised, as well as concepts like stringing phrases together—or “exploring the Omnisphere.”

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