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.

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

Maria Schneider’s Lush, Atmospheric Winter Morning Walks: Beauty Triumphs Over Horror

If there’s one thing that defines Maria Schneider‘s work, it’s color. So why would this era’s most dynamic composer in any style of music want to make a monochromatic album? Maybe because it was a challenge. Although Schneider’s big band jazz can be lush and enveloping to the nth degree, writing for string orchestra as she does here gives her a chance to build lingering long-tone themes that would be less suited to the reeds and brass of her jazz orchestra. Both suites on her most recent, death-obsessed album Winter Morning Walks are sung by Dawn Upshaw, an apt choice of vocalist considering that she’s as at home in both the avant garde and in jazz – notably in her collaborations with Wynton Marsalis – as she is in the classical world.

The first suite is orchestrations of poems by Ted Kooser, which debuted on NPR and document his predawn strolls while battling through chemotherapy (which he happily survived). The second is Schneider’s orchestral scores of text by iconic Brazilian poet Carlos Drummond de Andrade. The music of both is remarkably cohesive, and pretty much through-composed in keeping with the uneven meters of the poems: there’s very little repetition here. Upshaw is backed by the Australian Chamber Orchestra on the first and on the second by the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra along with core members of the Maria Schneider Orchestra: pianist Frank Kimbrough, bassist Jay Anderson and multi-reedman Scott Robinson on alto and bass clarinet.

Music inspired by impending doom has seldom been more gorgeous. An aptly drifting tone poem opens the initial suite, Upshaw’s clipped vocals growing more agitated against scurrying strings which then drive the music to a lull. Kimbrough’s steady, minimalist piano pairs with Robinson’s optimistic clarinet, then Upshaw delivers a mantra of sorts over a theme that grows uneasy despite the lushness underneath. A tender piano/strings interlude illustrates the point where Kooser’s wife joins him on one of his excursions. A calmly pulsing after-the-storm tableau gets followed by the menacing miniature Our Finch Feeder, with echoes of circus rock and noir cabaret, then a hopeful, crescendoing interlude. Nebulous, balmy orchestration gives way to a big bravura vocal crescendo on the final segment.

The de Andrade suite is more in the vein of Schneider’s extraordinarily vivid large ensemble jazz. The opening prologue sounds like an Ernesto Lecuona piece with lusher strings and English vocals – it gets creepier as it trails out. The Dead in Frock Coats, a plaintive, cello-fueled waltz in disguise, comes next, followed by the minimalist lullaby Souvenir of the Ancient World. The best song on the album, the absolutely chilling, majestically menacing Don’t Kill Yourself, blends hints of Arabic music with vintage Gil Evans Out of the Cool noir (which makes sense since Schneider was Evans’ greatest protegee). The album ends with an ominously throbbing vamp concealed in a cloud of strings. This is an album best enjoyed on your phone or your pod or your earphones – it’s best heard up close where Schneider’s intricacies can draw you into a reverie and then jar you out of it when least expected.

Now where else can you hear this album? Not at Spotify, or Instantencore (the classical counterpart to Bandcamp). Not at Schneider’s Youtube channel. However, Schneider streams much of her catalog at her site: you can get absolutely lost in the amazing stuff that’s up there.

May 11, 2014 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 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

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.

November 22, 2012 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Ryan Truesdell’s Gil Evans Project Unearths Rare, Never-Recorded Jazz Classics

Ryan Truesdell wears a lot of hats: composer, conductor and fulltime copyist for the Maria Schneider Orchestra. He’s also the founder of the Gil Evans Project. Revered by jazz fans for his paradigm-shifting arrangements for Miles Davis, Evans remains a cult figure decades after his death: sometimes lush and opaque, sometimes devastatingly direct, his compositions are still miles ahead of anything in the jazz mainstream. The Gil Evans project seeks to revive interest in the great composer/arranger by recording, releasing and playing rare, previously unreleased material that Truesdell discovered with the help of Evans’ family. A passionate and persuasive advocate for Evans’ music, Truesdell took some time out of his demanding schedule to give us the scoop:

Lucid Culture’s Correspondent: When did you discover Gil Evans? You were a kid, right? You heard Sketches of Spain and said, “Wow,” maybe? That’s what happened to me, and to pretty much everybody I know, who’s familiar with Evans…

Ryan Truesdell: My first exposure to Gil was through the album Porgy and Bess. It was some time in high school. I was looking for recordings of Miles Davis and Cannonball Adderley and saw that they were both on that record, plus I liked the album cover so I bought it. Little did I know what I was in for. From the first notes of Buzzard Song, I was hooked. I had never heard anything like that. At this point in my musical life, I was just starting to be interested in composition. Then to hear something like that? It was incredible. I think I went out the next day and bought the other records – Miles Ahead, Sketches of Spain and Quiet Nights. Then I started branching out to other things Gil had done with his own group or as an arranger on other people’s recordings. It was all so new and amazing to me. The way he used sound and color and the harmony of everything. And the fact that every time I listen to one of his records, I hear something new. I’ve listened to Porgy and Bess a thousand times over the years and to this day, I still find something new hidden in there every time hear it. Gil just had a mysterious quality to his writing and I was so curious to find out the answers to the mystery.

LCC: What inspired you to start the Gil Evans Project?

RT: This project started relatively gradually over the past few years. I started searching out Gil’s music because of my interest in it from a composer’s viewpoint. I wanted to learn as much as I could from Gil’s music to benefit my own writing, to learn and grow as a composer. Most of Gil’s music has never been widely available, so I would go through people that knew or worked with Gil or the Evans family directly. Then I started helping the Evans family out a bit more organizing Gil’s music, getting it back into playing condition, and trying to locate music that the family didn’t have copies of. As I was collecting all this music and going through it, I started to realize that I had a lot of pieces that I couldn’t find recordings of. After a while, I realized I had a LOT (at last count around 50 pieces) of unrecorded works of Gil’s, spanning his whole career. Around the same time, discussion was starting to happen about how best to celebrate Gil’s upcoming centennial in May 2012. The unrecorded music I found was really amazing and I felt it wasn’t fair to leave it in a filing cabinet, unplayed and unheard. So, that’s how the project started: what better way to celebrate Gil’s 100th birthday than to present a whole album of music never-before-heard, and show a whole other side of Gil people may not be aware of. I’m really looking forward to finally get this on record, and to share it with the world. It’s truly incredible music.

LCC: Gil Evans, as you know better than most anybody, was an extremely eclectic composer. Is the upcoming album the swing Gil Evans, the third-stream Gil Evans, the noir Gil Evans – or all of them?

RT: I’ve discovered arrangements of Gil’s from all eras of his career – one piece as early as 1937 that I suspect that he wrote for his own band, before he joined Skinnay Ennis or Claude Thornhill. For the recording, I’m going to look at everything I’ve found that hasn’t been recorded and pick the best charts. I’ve definitely found more tunes from the early part of his career than the later, but I think the tunes I’ve chosen will give the record a nice balance of his whole career.

LCC: Tell us about the songs. Do you have a particular favorite among them?

RT: There is one song in particular I’m drawn to; an arrangement Gil did for Astrud Gilberto of “Look To The Rainbow.” When they did the record of the same name in 1965, they recorded a version of “Look To The Rainbow” with just rhythm section, Astrud and one flute. But, I uncovered a full arrangement of this tune, for the same sessions, that they didn’t record. I’m not really sure why, but it’s really beautiful. I think everyone will agree when they hear it. A beautiful approach to the tune and just a great arrangement. But, in all honesty, every tune I’ve found has something that just amazes me. I can’t wait for everyone to hear these arrangements of Gil’s. I think they’ll find some new favorites of their own.

LCC: To what degree, if at all, are you rearranging any of the compositions?

RT: Almost none. In fact, there is only one tune out of all of them that I’m taking a very slight deviation from Gil’s approach, and that’s only in the rhythm section’s groove. Every note, every rhythm, every sound is Gil’s. Since this will be the first time these pieces have been put on record, I want them to be as close as possible to Gil’s original intention. The only reason I’m taking a slight deviation on the one tune is because Gil had just rehearsed it once, and hadn’t taken the time to perfect it, so I felt I could maybe make a slight change. I felt the rhythm section groove that Gil had used at the rehearsal didn’t fit the tune as well, and might be the reason Gil didn’t pursue the tune further. It is a tune based on Indian music and scales, and the groove was a sort-of jazz waltz. I’m going to try and incorporate a little more of the Indian vibe to the tune. I’m going to add a tabla player and see where that takes the tune.

LCC: How many of these compositions been previously recorded?

RT: Every piece I’m recording of Gil’s has never been on record before. There are a couple tunes that you will recognize in association with Gil – Maids of Cadiz, Waltz, etc. – but the arrangements of these tunes are totally new and never heard on record before. I’ve also uncovered a few of Gil’s original compositions that I’ll be recording as well. It’s especially great to find these since Gil was more known as an arranger than a composer, and this shows that Gil was writing a few more of his own compositions.

LCC: In what year of Evans’ career do you start, and where do you end?

RT: The never-before-recorded music that I’ve discovered all total spans nearly his entire career, from 1937 through 1987. For the recording, I chose the “best of the best” of these pieces and it happened that this time period was a little smaller – 1946 through 1971 or so.

LCC: Is there a backstory to any of the compositions you’ve unearthed that we should know about?

RT: Absolutely. Each tune has its own individual history within Gil’s career, but then all of these tunes together come together to give us a better view into Gil’s history as a whole. It’s amazing that this music, that has been undiscovered until now, held so much information on Gil’s history. I’ve been discussing each tune and its individual history and relationship to Gil’s career for the Project participants through the ArtistShare site, www.gilevansproject.com. It’s all outlined there for those who have pre-ordered the cd (or another participant level) and have chosen to participate in the project to follow the process of discovery and creation. I also plan to outline the history in the liner notes of the final cd as well.

LCC: You’re recording the album in August, right? Who’s on it?

RT: The group is made up of mostly NYC-based musicians – 30 all total – including Steve Wilson, Frank Kimbrough, Jay Anderson, Joe Locke, Luciana Souza, Lewis Nash, Marcus Rojas, Andy Bey, Greg Gisbert, Laurie Frink, etcetera. It’s an amazing group of musicians and I can’t wait to hear what they do to this music. The recording is in late August, the 21st through the 26th, here in New York.

LCC: You’re a musician yourself. Will you be playing on the album?

RT: I’ll be conducting in addition to my producing duties.

LCC: I understand you’re doing multiple cd release shows? Where and when, and with whom?

RT: I have a cd release concert in the works, but the details aren’t finalized yet, so it’s a little early to give specific details. BUT, I can say that we will have a cd release show, or shows, performing these never-before-recording works, in addition to a lot of the music of Gil’s that hasn’t been available or performed since it was first recorded. The cd is being released on May 13, 2012, Gil’s 100th birthday, so the concerts will be happening on that day for sure, and hopefully the few days leading up to it. So, all I can say now is that if you want to come to the cd release, plan on being in NYC on and around May 13, 2012! I’ll release further details as the plans become finalized.

June 27, 2011 Posted by | interview, jazz, Music, music, concert | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: Brandon Wright – Boiling Point

Good title. Tenor sax player Brandon Wright’s new album is fearless, aggressive and fun, ablaze with a catchy tunefulness that sets up a lot of memorable solo work of his own along with trumpeter Alex Sipiagin, pianist David Kikoski, bassist Hans Glawischnig and drummer Matt Wilson propelling things with a joyous groove. Yet for all the firepower, the band is equally adept at ballads, with a couple of real surprises here. A Maria Schneider, Mingus Big Band and Chico O’Farrill alum and current Chuck Mangione sideman, Wright is a hookmeister: his big band experience has served him well.

Wright sets the tone right off the bat with Free Man, joyously shifting from one mode to another. Sipiagin follows him more bluesily, then Kikoski intensely with some clever quotes in a shifting series of runs down the scale. The second cut, Drift is a casually lyrical 6/8 number, Kikoski weaving incisively beneath Wright’s gently buoyant flights, Sipiagin taking a more pensive tone. Track three, Odd Man Out has an understated swing that picks up once Wright starts sailing after the first verse, Kikoski choosing his spots with spot-on precision. Again Sipiagin gets to play bad cop to Wright’s good cop, bringing in the clouds. The title track matches subtle chordal shifts to an upbeat vibe all the way through to a blazing conclusion, Wright just about jumping out of his shoes, he’s having such a good time. Kikoski’s solo is a clinic in how to work a simple vamp, subtly yet ebulliently ornamenting it. And the swaying, latin-tinged Castaway is a showcase for robust Sipiagin flights and cartwheels, Wright taking it down a bit before Kikoski’s sparkling solo leads it to an ambitiously staggered horn raveup at the end.

There are also three covers here. Jimmy Van Heusen’s Here’s That Rainy Day is just sax and piano, a comfortably medicated dialogue. Interstate Love Song rearranges the country-flavored Stone Temple Pilots original to the point of being unrecognizable (good thing, actually, especially when the piano solos). They close with a warmly convivial, bluesy take of Nat King Cole’s You’re My Everything. The album is just out on Posi-Tone.

April 26, 2010 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment