A Transcendent Night with the Maria Schneider Orchestra
You might not expect a club to be packed on the eve of Thanksgiving, but the Jazz Standard was sold out and there was good reason for that: the Maria Schneider Orchestra were playing the second night of their annual weeklong stand here, and word had obviously gotten around. If jazz is your thing and you haven’t seen this band in awhile, now’s the time. The Jazz Standard is closed Thanksgiving day but they’ll be open tomorrow the 23rd, with sets at 7:30 and 9:30; Schneider will be here through Nov 25.
At the risk of inciting jealousy among other composers, Schneider is the gold standard as far as writing for big band is concerned these days – and has been for some time. Her music is an instance where the melodies mirror the artist herself, lithe and beautiful. Her work is defined by an economy of notes, vivid emotional attunement, lyrical transparency, ability to surprise and even stun and evince every breath worth of talent from the formidable cast behind her. For the mighty beast that they are, this orchestra can be exceptionally quiet: last night’s early set seemingly had as many solo, duo, trio and quartet passages as it did fullscale, all-stops-out crescendos. The result is plenty of suspense as well as a dynamic that sets up those big, sweepingly majestic swells so they can revel in their lustrous glory.
Even by Schneider’s standards, this particular set was transcendent, loaded with rich payoffs like that. Casually but energetically, she led the band through her well-loved Concert in the Garden, its bright, triumphant anthemics and lively Brazilian rhythms contrasting with terse guitar solos and an unexpectedly chilling, chromatically-fueled Frank Kimbrough piano solo out. The cinematic Journey Home wound its way methodically through its brass-heavy introductory theme, a series of rises and ebbs over a dancing tropical groove, Dave Pietro’s alto sax solo handing off nimbly to trombonist Ryan Keberle, who took his time as the chart wound down to just him and the rhythm section before bringing it up with a lushly energetic pulse.
Dance You Monster to My Soft Song, a standout track from Schneider’s 1992 debut, vividly drove home its taunting, tantalizing themes inspired by a Paul Klee painting in the Guggenheim. It’s an ambitious work full of ominous slides and tricky metrics, punctuated this time out by a wailing, upper-register bari sax solo from Scott Robinson and an agitatedly heated hard-bop conversation between soprano saxophonist Steve Wilson and trumpeter Ingrid Jensen.
A brand-new song dedicated to George Wein, an early champion of Schneider’s music, made its New York premiere, dancing its way to a warm, balmy series of shifting sheets of sound, lit up by an expansively lyrical Rich Perry alto sax solo and Kimbrough’s glimmering nocturnal piano. Big band jazz simply doesn’t get any better or more memorable than this. The ensemble wrapped up the set with a towering, stormy take on El Viento, a showstopper if there ever was one, working an Arabic-tinged mode with venomously powerful, succinct solos from Chris Potter on tenor sax and Mike Shapiro on trombone. As it hit the final series of seemingly endless false endings, it was easy to hope that the band simply wouldn’t end it and would keep going as long as the club would let them. In sum: this is why big band jazz is so much fun, a monster performance from a group which also included Tony Kadleck, Laurie Frink and Garrett Schmidt on trumpets, Jay Anderson on bass, Clarence Penn on drums, Marshall Gilkes and George Flynn on trombones.
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