On the provocative Omnisphere, recorded live in 2015, Medeski Martin & Wood venture into contemporary classical music, with the help of 20-piece chamber orchestra Alarm Will Sound. The ambitious program offers a mix of compositions penned by musicians from both ensembles, starting with the suite-like “Kid Tao Mammal (unworldliness weirdo),” by AWS percussionist Payton MacDonald. Leapfrogging brass and woodwind lines are followed by John Medeski’s trippy electric-piano declarations, wide-open chiming, violin and clarinet statements intermingled with bassist Chris Wood’s upright interjections, Billy Martin’s extended trap-kit buildup, and finally a furious, rapidly intensifying statement of the initial theme.
MMW revisits its 2004 album End of the World Party (Just in Case) with new versions of two pieces. The moody “Anonymous Skulls,” arranged by AWS violinist Courtney Orlando, thrives on a spooky theme played over pulsing rhythms before settling into the kind of laid-back rubbery groove, with rambunctious organ, that’s long been MMW’s calling card. That 14-year-old album’s title track, arranged by cellist Stefan Freund and juiced with electric piano, acoustic bass, and vocal chants, comes off as old-school soul with strings.
Martin’s “Coral Sea,” arranged by AWS trumpeter Jason Price, is all impressionistic colors and textures, with keyboards, violin, percussion, and other instruments slipping in and out of the soundscape, while Medeski’s “Eye of Ra” shuttles through electronic bleeps and beeps, woodwind-driven pastoral beauty and dissonance, rock ’n’ roll riffing, a raucous organ solo, and odd blasts of noisy turbulence. AWS multi-instrumentalist Caleb Burhans’ bell-chiming “Oh Ye of Little Faith (Do You Know Where Your Children Are?)” points to minimalism, and bassist Miles Brown’s minor-tinged “Northern Lights” could be the soundtrack for vintage film noir. Omnisphere, available only via download and double-vinyl LP, makes for a welcome outlier in MMW’s rangy catalog.