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The New Cool: Portland's Outer Orbit adds guest star John Medeski for debut single

Photo by Reed Ricker
John Medeski (foreground) guests with Portland's Outer Orbit on their new single.

Northwest jazz fans are likely familar with Galen Clark. The leader and keys player with Trio Subtonic is a key member of the Portland modern jazz community, and his latest project, Outer Orbit, has a soulful new single out this week, featuring an extra special guest.

John Medeski is an icon of modern electric keyboard improvisation. He's crossed over to modern jazz and jam band audiences and acts as a perfect foil to Outer Orbit singer Sarah Clarke and band leader Galen Clark on their debut single "Neena."

I asked Clark if he could give us some insight into the band, Sarah Clarke, John Medeski and how this new collaboration took shape. It all started, he says, with a bunch of friends getting together in a studio.

One of the songs they recorded, "ended up on Tyrone's (drummer Tyrone Hendrix) album, and it was kind of the seed of the band," Clark explains. "I had been watching a ton of Sly and the Family Stone videos, and I really wanted to start a multiple keys band with a great singer. We started featuring Sarah Clarke on gigs and right away it felt really good. It became obvious we all wanted to make this a thing that happened all the time."

Thus, Outer Orbit was born.

The keys player Clark says he first worked with the singer Clarke in her band Dirty Revival, "we started collaborating and co-writing songs together, including 'Neena.' "

Outer Orbit uses the triple-booster-rocket-power of Clark and Medeski's keyboard wizardry with Clarke's warm, authoritative vocals to shoot a straight-up soul song into the stratosphere.

So, how did one of Clark's "heroes" end up guesting on the first Outer Orbit single? It turns out all he had to do was ask, when Medeski visited Portland for the city's jazz festival just before the pandemic arrived.

"I asked if he would be down to do a session," Clark told me, and he agreed. Soon after, they gathered at Portland's Map Room Recording Studio to get "Neena" together.

"It was a dream to collaborate with John," Clark relates. "I have known him since I was a kid through a mutual family friend and witnessed Medeski, Martin & Wood take off pretty much from the start. It goes without saying I was a huge fan growing up and went to as many shows as I could get to. John has been a hero and definitely one of my biggest influences."

Credit Photo by Todd Gee
Outer Orbit (l-r): Peter Knudsen (g), Galen Clark (k), Damian Erskine (b), Sarah Clarke (voc), Michael Elson (k), Tyrone Hendrix (d)

Expect another single or two to be released ahead of Outer Orbit's debut album, which Clark says should arrive in June. Other special guests, singer Saeeda Wright and keyboardist/programmer Nicholas Semrad, also contribute to this long-awaited collection of modern soul jazz.

Clark explains, "We probably sat on it for longer because of the pandemic but it gave me a chance to curate it and do some more writing."

You can buy the digital single on Outer Orbit's bandcamp page Friday, with live concerts to follow as soon as safely possible.

Stay tuned to The New Cool for more on the inevitable restoration of the greater Northwest music community. Seattle, Tacoma, Portland, Vancouver and beyond - your stages and venues will be filled again soon.

The New Cool airs Fridays from 9 to 11 p.m., hosted by Abe Beeson and produced by KNKX Public Radio in Seattle, Wash.

Abe grew up in Western Washington, a third generation Seattle/Tacoma kid. It was as a student at Pacific Lutheran University that Abe landed his first job at KNKX, editing and producing audio for news stories. It was a Christmas Day shift no one else wanted that gave Abe his first on-air experience which led to overnights, then Saturday afternoons, and started hosting Evening Jazz in 1998.