Omnisphere is a collaboration between the acid jazz-oriented trio of Medeski, Martin and Wood (MMW, comprised of John Medeski on keyoards, Billy Martin on drums and Chris Wood on bass) and Alarm Will Sound (AWS), a contemporary music orchestra that has collaborated with the likes of Steve Reich and Bjork.
MMW achieved a degree of cross-over success a few years back, signing to Blue Note records, and recording some fine albums with guitarist John Scofield (A Go Go from 1998 being a personal favourite). These days they are recording for their own label, Indirecto Records, which gives them the freedom to pursue their own direction, which leads us to Omnisphere.
On the face of it, it might seem an unlikely collaboration. But in their early years, MMW listed to a lot of different music when they were on the road. “There was a lot of chamber music, contemporary classical music: Ligeti, Feldman, Sun Ra even,” Billy Martin revealed. It’s also worth remembering that MMW have been serial collaborators over the years, as a trio, and individually, with the likes of Phish, John Scofield and even the North Mississippi Allstars, a blues-gospel band.
The album is very much a collaboration, reflecting the mutual respect of the two bands. The opener, Kid Tao Mammal (Unworldliness Weirdo), was commissioned for the project, and written by founding AWS percussionist Payton MacDonald. It features waves of strings and woodwinds, underpinned by the warmth of Medeski’s electric piano, and pierced by occasional blasts of brass. The tune eventually breaks down to a quiet, more ambient section, before Billy Martin brings it back to a crescendo with a drum break.
Anonymous Skulls featured on MMW’s classic Blue Note album, End Of The World Party (Just In Case) from 2004, and this version was arranged by AWS violinist Courtney Orlando, who fleshes out the original. It’s more groove-oriented than the opener, and probably a more enjoyable listen as a consequence.
Coral Sea and Oh Ye of Little Faith...(Do You Know Where Your Children Are?) both sound like they belong on a different album altogether. The former was written Billy Martin, but was radically re-arranged by AWS trumpeter Jason Price. It’s a shimmering, mesmerising arrangement, that almost sounds like a quieter jazz fusion piece, arranged for strings. The latter was composed by AWS multi-instrumentalist Caleb Burhans. It is hauntingly beautiful, and reminded me of a some of the work by minimalist composer, Gavin Bryars. That said, it sounds like a AWS tune, rather than a collaboration.
The atmospheric, film-like Northern Lights was written by Miles Brown, AWS’s bass player, with both bands in mind, and with the aim of pushing his own band to improvise, “just a little bit!” Eye Of Ra, running to twenty minutes, is the album’s showcase. Composed by John Medeski, it effectively tries to combine Sun Ra with Shostakovich, and works very well as a stand-alone piece – but perhaps not so well as part of a whole.
The album is brought to a close by a rousing arrangement of MMW’s End Of The World Party (Just In Case), from the album of the same name. It is the ‘single’ off the album, if you can call it that, but is highly enjoyable nonetheless, demonstrating the power of the two bands combined.
Overall, Omnisphere is easier to admire than to love. It does feel like a genuine collaboration, rather then feeling as though strings have simply been bolted-on to MMW tracks. It’s also clear that members of both bands brought something to the (end of the world) party, with a variety of new compositions and re-workings of older tunes. Moreover, the sound is genuinely impressive, with production by Billy Martin and John Medeski. I thought it worked better as select, individual pieces, than as a whole. Coral Sea and Oh Ye of Little Faith were quite beautiful pieces, but sounded as though they belonged on a different album to Eye Of Ra, for example. If I were to witness these performances on stage, I would probably come away exhilarated, but at home – even with the benefits of a good hi-fi, I found it to be too disjointed for its own good – notwithstanding some genuine highlights amongst the stand-alone pieces.