Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

The Maria Schneider Orchestra Bring a Luminous, Relevant New Album to a Stand at Birdland

To pigeonhole the Maria Schneider Orchestra‘s latest magnum opus, The Thompson Fields. as pastoral jazz downplays its genuinely extraordinary beauty and epic sweep. But a musicologist would probably consider how much the vast expanses of the Minnesota prairie where Schneider grew up have influenced her writing. To call Schneider this era’s paradigmatic big band jazz composer would also be just part of a larger picture: among this era’s composers in any style of music, only Kayhan Kalhor and Darcy James Argue reach such ambitious and transcendent peaks. She’s bringing her Orchestra to a stand at Birdland this week, June 2 through 6 with sets at 8:30 and 11 PM.

As is her custom, Schneider’s compositions go far, far beyond mere vehicles for extended solos, although the solos here are exquisite and serve as the high points they ought to be. Scott Robinson’s alto clarinet dipping between heartfelt lows and airily triumphant swells on the opening number, a newly reorchestrated take of the early-morning nocturne Walking by Flashlight – from Schneider’s previous album Winter Morning Walks – sets the stage.

That number is the shortest one here: the rest of the album builds an expansive, dynamically rich Midwestern panorama. All of Schneider’s familiar tropes are in top form: her use of every inch of the sonic spectrum in the spirit of her mentor Gil Evans; endless twists and turns that give way to long, lushly enveloping, slow upward climbs; and her signature, translucent, neoromantically-influenced tunesmithing. Marshall Gilkes’ looming trombone and Greg Gisbert’s achingly vivid flugelhorn illuminate The Monarch and the Milkweed, a pensively summery meditation on the beauty of symmetry and nature. Robinson’s baritone and Donny McCaslin’s tenor sax take to the sky in Arbiters of Evolution, a labyrinthine, pulsing, slowly unwinding portrait of birds in flight (perhaps for their lives – as in much of Schneider’s work, there’s a wary environmentalist point of view in full effect here).

Frank Kimbrough’s piano and Lage Lund’s guitar carry the title track from its gentle, plainspoken intro through an unexpectedly icy interlude to gracefully dancing motives over lush waves of brass. The most pastoral of all the cuts here is Home, graced by Rich Perry’s calm, warmly meditatitve tenor sax. Then the orchestra picks up with a literally breathtaking pulse, inducing g-forces as Nimbus reaches its stormy heights, Steve Wilson’s alto sax swirling as the cinematics unfold. As a portrait of awe-inspiring Midwestern storm power, it’s pretty much unrivalled.

Gary Versace’s plaintive accordion takes centerstage amidst a rich, ominously brooding brass chart in the intense, elegaic A Potter’s Song, dedicated to the late, great trumpeter and longtime Schneider associate Laurie Frink. The album winds up on a joyously Brazilian-flavored note with Lembranca, inspired by a pivotal moment in Schneider’s life, spellbound by a carnival drum orchestra, Ryan Keberle’s trombone and Jay Anderson’s bass adding color and bouncy energy.

The album, a crowdfunded endeavor comprising newly commissioned works, comes in a gorgeously illustrated full-color digipak with extensive and articulate liner notes from the composer. Like a couple other pantheonic artists, Richard Thompson and Olivier Messiaen, Schneider is also a birder, and her commentary on current environmental crises affecting the avian world and her beloved prairie home turf are spot-on. Where does this fall in the Schneider catalog? It’s hard to say: there’s the ambition and scope of, say, Concert in the Garden, but also the saturnine majesty of Winter Morning Walks. It’s a new direction for her, no surprise considering how often she’s reinvented herself. And while it doesn’t seem to be up at the usual spots, i.e. Spotify and such, you can get completely lost in the radio feature at Schneider’s webpage. It’s the best possible advertising this album, and her work as a whole, could possibly have.

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May 30, 2015 Posted by | classical music, jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Classic Reinvented

This is the kind of group we like best – modestly titled but ambitious and very good at what they do. The Westchester Jazz Orchestra, who are in fact a conglomerate of A-list New York players, like to muscle up new arrangements of old classics, from Coltrane, to Dizzy, to Motown: their latest, a brand-new big band version of Herbie Hancock’s 1965 Maiden Voyage Suite, proves to be every bit worth the titanic effort it obviously took to create it. Hancock turned 70 this past year. No doubt he’d be proud not only to see how well his original has held up, but how inspiring it’s been to this large cast of characters, especially considering that they’ve added four relatively brief transitional passages – including a tantalizing, suspenseful conclusion to bring the suite full circle – which interpolate many of Hancock’s motifs. Ironically, the charts often take the tunes back in time to a late 50s milieu, especially when there’s a Cuban rhythm, a noirish, Mingus-esque crescendo or a bracingly cinematic Cal Tjader-esque moment. Conductor Mike Holober, along with Pete McGuinness, the group’s trumpeter Tony Kladeck and saxophonist Jay Brandford came up with the new charts. The rest of the ensemble includes David Brandom on soprano sax; Jason Rigby and Ralph Lalama on tenor sax; Ed Xiques on baritone sax; Jim Rotondi, Craig Johnson and Marvin Stamm on trumpet and flugelhorns; Larry Farrell, Keith O’Quinn and Bruce Eidem on trombone, George Flynn on bass trombone; Ted Rosenthal on piano; Harvie S. on bass, and Andy Watson on drums.

The prologue sets the stage, a somewhat murky ocean port scenario that segues up into the title track, understating its slinky pulse until Watson returns with a clave beat as it winds down. Before that, this eleven-minute monster gives Brandom the chance to flip the script from cheery to serioso, then Stamm foreshadows the intensity to an even greater degree. They segue again into Eye of the Hurricane, the heft of the charts powerfully enhancing its rhythmic insistence: Rigby follows Brandom’s tangent from the preceding track, Stamm swings it with the bass and Rosenthal gets to take it mysterious all by himself.

Little One stays closest to the original, with its series of wary alternating voices, a warm Farrell trombone solo over just the rhythm section and a beefed-up jazz waltz as the orchestra rises mightily. They follow it with a brief interlude that hints at the Caribbean. Survival of the Fittest, expanded into two parts here, gives Rotondi the chance to go completely out into the stratosphere with some lightning swirls and Rigby follows in the same vein on the second section, the big chase leading to the album’s most deliciously wailing crescendo. Dolphin Dance is the one that everybody covers, and both Lalama and Rotondi get to go deeply and thoughtfully into it, the trumpet shifting the mood rather dramatically from lush to wary – its final section, as the entire ensemble carries the melody, is richly satisfying. And the new Epilogue adds a neat suspenseful element to wind up an extremely original and successful reinterpretation. Spin this and you’re going to get a lot of “can you play that one again”‘ – and maybe a few “can we hear the original too”‘s.

November 13, 2011 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment