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Dig Into a New Groove with Medeski Martin & Wood, James Francies, Jason Lindner and More

Michael Bloom
John Medeski, Chris Wood and Billy Martin. 'Omnisphere' is the new album by Medeski Martin & Wood.

Medeski Martin & Wood with Alarm Will Sound, “Kid Tao Mammal (Unworldliness Weirdo)”

Rhythm is always at the center of the picture for Medeski Martin & Wood, which has now been working its cohesive magic for more than 25 years. This cooperative trio — John Medeski on keyboards, Chris Wood on bass, Billy Martin on drums — hasn’t had a new release since 2014, when it put out one album apiece with John Scofield (Juice) and another ingenious guitarist, Nels Cline (Woodstock Sessions, Vol. 2). The band’s latest, Omnisphere, out this Friday on MMW’s Indirecto Records, is the byproduct of collaboration on a larger scale.

Recorded in concert a few years ago in Denver, Co., it features Medeski Martin & Wood with the chamber orchestra Alarm Will Sound, a defining new-music ensemble of our age. The album’s track list includes a pair of reimagined tunes from the vintage MMW album End of the World Party (Just in Case), but otherwise consists of original compositions. Martin and Medeski are responsible for a couple of those; others come from Alarm Will Sound members like violinist-violist-guitarist Caleb Burhans and bassist Miles Brown.

The opening track, “Kid Tao Mammal (Unworldliness Weirdo),” which has its premiere here, was composed for this project by percussionist Payton MacDonald, a founding member of Alarm Will Sound. It’s an excellent representation of the album, shining a light on all parties involved: note the zip-lining orchestral figures that set up Medeski’s funky electric piano solo, and the tensile hush that descends about four minutes in. (After an extended middle section that begins with vibraphone and cello, Martin constructs a masterly drum solo in free tempo.) By track’s end, we’ve returned to the arpeggiated flourish from the overture.

Now Vs Now, “Glimmer”

Now Vs Now is a deep-in-the-pocket band led by keyboardist Jason Lindner, whom you may know for his work with David Bowie and Donny McCaslin. But you should also be familiar, separately, with Now Vs Now as a working unit; a decade ago, in fact, it made its first studio recording expressly for WBGO.


The band’s new album is The Buffering Cocoon (Jazzland), due out this Friday. An electronic fantasia, created in the emotionally charged afterglow of Bowie’s Blackstar, it features Lindner with electric bassist Panagiotis Andreou (a founding member of Now Vs Now) and drummer Justin Tyson (a newer addition to the family). Some tracks on the album, like “https://youtu.be/LR2cVU63EH0">Silkworm Society” and “The Scarecrow,” employ groove as an undercurrent for melodic development. Others — like “Glimmer,” premiering here — push the beats to the foreground, with everything else seeming to play a supporting role.

Justin Kauflin, “Lost”

If the last thing you recall about Justin Kauflin is his tutelage by Clark Terry, as chronicled in the 2014 documentary Keep On Keepin’ On, you may be in for a mild surprise. Kauflin, who has another important mentor in Quincy Jones, tacks in the direction of jazz-gospel with Coming Home, an album releasing this Friday on Qwest Records. Produced by Jones and Derrick Hodge, the album featues Corey Fonville on drums, Chris Smith on bass and Alan Parker on acoustic and electric guitars.

There’s a deeper level of assurance on Coming Home than on Kauflin’s previous full-scale album, Dedication, in 2015. (In between came Silent Nighta low-key holiday release.) “Lost,” which premieres here, has a melancholy, low-gloss pop affect that might call to mind Brad Mehldau’s Highway Rider. In a statement accompanying the single, Kauflin articulates a multilayered meaning in the title: “Traveling the world these last few years as a totally blind individual has been an interesting emotional journey. At many times, I’ve felt quite lost and overwhelmed by these completely new surroundings.” Along with this physical disorientation, Kauflin adds, is a sense of internal drift. “This song serves as an invitation to experience the journey of simply not knowing how things will work out,” he says, “but still trusting that they will work out nonetheless.”

James Francies, “Dreaming”

James Francies is an unusually precocious talent: a pianist and composer who, at 23, has already become a regular fixture alongside artists like Pat Metheny and Chris Potter, and on outlets like The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon. I first took note of Francies a few years ago, when he was still a junior at The New School, and so it almost feels like his debut album is a gesture overdue. That album, Flight, will be released on Blue Note Records on Oct. 19. “Dreaming” is its lead single.


Like the Justin Kauflin album above, Flight was produced by Derrick Hodge. It features a careful blend of acoustic and electric settings, with players including Potter, guitarist Mike Moreno, vibraphonist Joel Ross and bassist Burniss Earl Travis II. On “Dreaming,” Chris Turner shows up on vocals, while Mike Mitchell plays a sort of concerto for drums. It’s a tune with the drifting R&B feeling you might associate with Hodge as a member of the Robert Glasper Experiment. But Francies is setting his own coordinates; this is just a hint of what Flight has in store.

Robbie Lee and Mary Halvorson, “Seven of Strong”

Sometimes rhythm, whether articulated or implied, can be the best means of finding your footing on uncertain terrain. There are a few moments on Seed Triangular (New Amsterdam), at least, when this proves to be the case. A collaborative effort by guitarist Mary Halvorson and multi-reedist Robbie Lee, the album comes rooted in willful discovery. Both musicians played instruments new to them; in Halvorson’s case, that included a six-string banjo and an 18-string Knutsen harp guitar, both over 120 years old. (Lee played Baroque flutes, melodica and soprillo saxophone.)

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“Seven of Strong” is a piece on the album with a faint tinge of the Western frontier, thanks to the deep twang of the harp guitar. In this video for the song, a silkworm hangs from a tree, suggesting a possible metaphor for this collaboration, though it’s not as if Lee and Halvorson are twisting in the wind. They appear next Monday, Sept. 17, at (le) poisson rouge, on a double bill that also finds Halvorson in duologue with Bill Frisell, in celebration of their new album A Tribute to Johnny Smith (Tzadik).