Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

The Maria Schneider Orchestra Play Gorgeously Lush Pastoral Jazz at Birdland This Week

Sometimes you have to see a piece of music live to understand it. Beyond the endless multitask and distractions while the album or the mp3 spins – do mp3s spin, or at least wish they do? – some music is so rich that it requires serious immersion to get a handle on it. Even by Maria Schneider‘s lofty standards, the big band jazz composer’s new album The Thompson Fields, with her Orchestra, is pretty amazing. This past evening on the podium at at Birdland, she led her big band through several of its lush, raptly beautiful, distantly angst-fueled numbers, holding the crowd rapt in the process. It was one of those nights when there’s a hush that lingers like an echo for a couple of seconds after the band winds up a song. If your wallet can handle it and you have a thing for epic, sweeping, unsellfconsciously deep music, she and the band are playing two sets at 8:30 and 11 PM on 44th Street through June 6.

It was almost funny hearing the orchestra open with Green Piece, which Schneider told the crowd was only her second large ensemble composition to be recorded. With its bustling, shapeshifting sheets of sound and an almost obligatory, strolling swing interlude midway through, it’s a period-perfect 1994 BMI Composers Workshop showpiece. Hardly a bad song, and the band played it with equal parts heft and precision, but it was as if Schneider was saying, “You liked me then? Here’s where I’m at now!”

And followed with an expansive, spellbinding take of The Monarch and the Milkweed, one of the standout tracks from the new album. Tenor saxophonist Donny McCaslin took centerstage as the inquisitive insect reveling in midwestern magnificence over a warmly labyrinthine backdrop that finally reached towering proportions. The album’s title track was the piece de resistance: what’s the uneasily glimmering interlude about four minutes in all about? It’s ghosts of the midwest, revenants from Schneider’s beloved Minnesota countryside, flickering, intimating their stories. Pianist Frank Kimbrough and guitarist Lage Lund whispered by themselves and then teamed to illuminate them, hitting an unexpected and absolutely chiling series of almost Balkan close harmonies midway through.

The unexpected treat – Schneider usually has one – was one of the bonus tracks [where the hell is that download card?] from the album, a blustery altered clave number lit up at the end by a lively, jauntily amusing trumpet exchange between Greg Gisbert and Mike Rodriguez. And what business does the album’s final, Brazilian-inflected track have in this suite of prairie pastorales? Peering in from the end of the bar, it turned out to be a seemingly endless series of modulations. How did Schneider get away with such an obvious trope? Very subtle shifts in the brass backdrop. For good measure, the song’s long, lustrous outro – if it’s fair to call four or five minutes an outro – made a pillowy setup for the nocturnal glimmer and gleam of the end of the show.

June 2, 2015 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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.

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

The Maria Schneider Orchestra at the Jazz Standard: Go See Them If You’re in Town

Great tunesmiths never have to look far to find good musicians. Wednesday night’s late set by the Maria Schneider Orchestra at the Jazz Standard may have been a clinic in cutting-edge writing for large ensemble, but it was also a summit meeting of some of New York’s edgiest jazz talent. Schneider and this awe-inspiring cast are here through Sunday at 7:30 and 9:30, an annual Thanksgiving week tradition that, if you haven’t already joined the cult, is waiting for you to discover and be hooked by it forever.

The most unforgettable solo of the night was when pianist Frank Kimbrough segued from the slinky, suspenseful soul groove Night Watchman into the more sweepingly lush Sailing, adding a menacingly glittering noir coda packed with chromatics and macabre major-on-minor riffs before the bright, buoyant atmospherics set in.  Or, it might have been tenor saxophonist Donny McCaslin’s droll, mischievous portrayal of hijinks out on a Minnesota lake, Schneider looking back on hanging with friends during her formative years. There was also a slowly unfolding, enigmatic but warmly chordal solo from guitarist Lage Lund, an even more ambient and plaintive one from accordionist Gary Versace. an allusively microtonal Steve Wilson alto sax solo; a thoughtfully considered, spiraling trombone solo by Marshall Gilkes and a more spacious yet also more rhythmically adventurous one later on from Ryan Keberle – and there were others. Ironically, this big band relies less on soloing than any other. It’s Schneider’s compositions that people come out for: contributions from the rest of the personalities are the icing on the cake.

A couple of  the set’s early tunes were the bluesiest and most in-the-tradition, but also less of a showcase for the sweeping colors and epic majesty that characterizes so much of Schneider’s more recent work: it was as she was saying, “So you think I was good then? You should hear me now.” A new one, dedicated to the late Brazilian percussionist Paolo Mora, was inspired by the time he took Schneider out to see a performance of one of his massive student ensembles: “It was like being shot out of a cannon,” Schneider explained, being surrounded on all sides by all the percussive firepower. And this piece, with its swirling, hypnotic midsection, had the same effect, bolstered by her signature melody and sweep. But there were just as many hushed, rapt moments, as in the closing number, a bittersweet, pre-dawn Great Plains tableau (from Schneider’s recent Dawn Upshaw collaboration, Morning Walks), or when bassist Jay Anderson built elegant, plaintive pointillisms with guitar voicings as swells subsided to whispers.

It also happened to be Schneider’s birthday, and she was overcome both by the band’s affection – not to mention their blend of meticulousness and titanic, Gil Evans-inspired power – and by her memories of the late trumpeter Laurie Frink, an important part of this ensemble for several years. It wasn’t much of a surprise that Schneider would wear her heart on her sleeve, considering how emotionally direct her music is. If you’re in town this weekend, go see her.

November 27, 2013 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Owl Trio Evokes Grey Cosmopolitan Skies at St. Peter’s

Isn’t it great when you luck into finding a concert that perfectly fits the mood of the day? Yesterday evening at Jazz at St. Peter’s, the Owl Trio – bassist Orlando LeFleming, alto saxophonist Will Vinson and guitarist Lage Lund – succinctly captured the overcast milieu, playing the album release show for their debut cd, just out on the Norwegian Losen label. The trio call themselves chamber jazz, having recorded the album in an abandoned Brooklyn church. That experience no doubt prepared them for St. Peter’s cavernous sonics. Lund, when not reading the music, looked up at the grey sky lurking outside the first-floor windows overhead. LeFleming matter-of-factly filled the simultaneous roles of rhythmic center, low-register anchor and third melodic voice, always a challenge in a setting when there’s no drummer. Vinson’s crystalline, reflecting-pool tone echoed through the big room with an often poignant elegance and occasionally something of a trumpet timbre: he felt the space, and then took ownership.

The set comprised material from the album as well as a single, more upbeat tune that the group has yet to record. Duke Ellington’s Morning Glory made for a vivid, gently swinging early morning tableau, Vinson’s gentle but resolute resonance against Lund’s casual swing and LeFleming’s calm pulse. Lund, who gave it a lowlit, sprightly dancing solo, also brightened a quietly dynamite version of Jim Hall’s All Cross the City, Vinson opening this cinematic skyscape with more than a hint of suspense, building to a rewarding wary/bright dichotomy between sax and guitar. This being a church, they went deep into the mystical side of the Coltrane songbook, including an intense version of Dear Lord, LeFleming introducing it with a stately understatement, Vinson’s gently dancing lines retained an earnest, pleading intensity in combination with Lund’s judicious chordal work that did justice to the guy who wrote it. After picking up with an unexpected lilt, they wound up the set with a reflective, rainy-day take of Toninho Horta’s Moonstone. That the big room did nothing to diminish the intimacy of the performance speaks to the tightness and solidity of the arrangements and the players’ dedication to setting a mood and then maintaining it.

August 19, 2013 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: Leron Thomas – Around You

Trumpeter/composer Leron Thomas’ new cd is an album of beautiful ballads: it’s tempting to ask, is this a joke? Thomas has a distinctive, sometimes brutally sardonic sense of humor, and a vastly more diverse sensibility than he lets onto here. To see him go in such a traditional jazz direction, so effortlessly and unselfconsciously, it only makes sense to wonder if he has something up his sleeve. This is Blue Note stuff, Newport stuff, accessible yet brimming with inspired contributions from a well-chosen supporting cast: Lage Lund on guitar, Frank LoCrasto on acoustic and electric piano, Burniss Earl Travis on bass and electric bass and Jamire Williams on drums. From the photo on the album cover, Thomas doesn’t look any happier than he would if he was opening for Chris Botti (somebody he’d blow off the bandstand: then again, so would a whole lot of good jazz players). But when he picks up his horn…wow. Vividly lyrical and expressive, the melodies jump out and linger memorably: you can hum this stuff to yourself in the street.

The opening track, Doc Morgan works its way methodically into a slow triplet rhythm which Williams tosses playfully, the rest of the band in turn echoing Thomas’ terse, distantly bluesy explorations with a similar purist touch. The suspiciously titled Conformed Retro mines a subtle, tuneful bossa vibe for all the balminess Thomas can muster, yet for all its trad overtones, the playing isn’t cliched, particularly when he picks up the energy. The contrast between Lund’s eighth-note flights and Williams’ terse, solid snare-and-cymbal is awfully compelling too, as is LoCrasto when he introduces a brisk tectonic shift and the band has no choice but to follow. Wordless Fable, for all its unassuming warmth, hints at a resolution but won’t go there – and then it’s over.

So what is Paycheck Players about? Dudes who are broke all week because they bought so many drinks for girls on Friday night? Or is it a stab at mercenary musicians? LoCrasto’s spritely, tongue-in-cheek electric piano offers a hint. The album closes with the title track, a gorgeous, contemplative song without words that reminds of Harold Arlen, particularly at the end: somebody should give this one lyrics. Who is the audience for this? Your typical Newport/Blue Note jazz crowd. It’s almost as if Thomas is saying, “I can do this as well as anybody in the business, almost without trying.” No joke.

July 20, 2010 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment