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JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

The Data Lords Are No Match For the Rest of Us in Maria Schneider’s Visionary Magnum Opus

Imagine what Hitler could have done if Facebook and Instagram had existed in 1938. There wouldn’t have been a single Jew or Romany person left alive in Europe. Or any musicians, artists, writers, or member of the intelligentsia.

All genuine art is transgressive. And fascists don’t like people who disobey.

There are a lot of little Hitlers working for the Trace and Track Corps right now who are datamining Facebook, Instagram, and every other digital platform including private phones.

You do the math.

So it’s kind of a miracle that Maria Schneider has been able to release her new album Data Lords in the year of the lockdown. In a career where she’s been widely acknowledged as the foremost jazz composer since the 1990s, this is a magnum opus, her bravest and most musically ambitious release yet. And it ends optimistically. As Schneider sees it, the people – and the animals, and the lakes and the trees – are going to win this war.

It’s a double album, the first titled The Digital World, the second Our Natural World. Schneider grew up in Minnesota, an outdoorsy kid whose love and advocacy for nature remains a persistent theme throughout her work. That resonates more strongly than ever on the second disc.

The first is protest music on the highest level of artistic expression, with Shostakovian irony and defiant Mingus humor. Improvisation seems to play an even greater role than ever in Schneider’s work here, and her brilliant ensemble attack it with reckless abandon and attention to the most minute details. It would take a book to dissect each of these pieces.

The opening number is A World Lost. Reduced to lowest terms, it’s basically a one-chord jam. From Frank Kimbrough’s elegaic, modally circling piano and Jay Anderson’s somber bowed bass, drummer Johnathan Blake adds mutedly shamanistic color. The orchestra develops a chromatic menace anchored by the low reeds, Rich Perry’s hopeful, defiant tenor sax pulsing through what could be groupthink. Anderson signals a rise to a fullscale conflagration; Perry’s tumble out of the sky, shadowed by guitarist Ben Monder’s atmospheric lines, is one of the most stunning moments on the album. Is this a portrait of the innate feebleness of the data lords, whose machines have not liberated but disempowered them? Or is this the failure of the world to realize the sinister implications of digital media?

The sarcasm in Don’t Be Evil – you know, the Google motto – is savage to the extreme. The quirky intro hints that these dorks couldn’t hurt a fly – but wait! A folksy caricature grows more macabre, with stabbing horns and a spastic, tormented guitar solo as a marching lockstep develops. Trombonist Ryan Keberle plays momentary voice of reason, Kimbrough the gleefully evil architect of an empire of spies with his phantasmagorical ripples. This might be the best song Schneider ever wrote.

Although CQ CQ Is There Anybody There predates the lockdown, it could be a portrait of what Del Bigtree calls the “illuminati of clowns” behind it. This one’s particularly creepy. There’s a persistent rubato feel to a large proportion of this disc, and this song is a prime example, from acidically swooping atmospherics and a descent into the murk with guitar lurking just overhead. Tenor saxophonist Donny McCaslin provides ebullient contrast over the growl as Blake builds wave motion, then trumpeter Greg Gisbert and his pedal become a one-man cheer section for impending doom as the orchestra fall in and out of sync, until his shriek signals complete control. Those masks will never come off again.

Scott Robinson channels a vast range of emotions on baritone sax, from burbling contentedness to valve-ripping extended technique throughout Sputnik. Kimbrough introduces it somberly, then it becomes a contented deep-space theme. The way Schneider weaves the initial disquiet back in is nothing short of brilliant; the group bring it full circle. A 5G parable, maybe?

The album’s title track and centerpiece has a cold vindictiveness, from the glitchy electronic sarcasm of the intro, through an anxious flutter of individual voices as Blake circles his kit. Trumpeter Mike Rodriguez chooses his spots over a grim vamp, offers a guarded optimism but finally grows frantic. Could alto saxophonist Dave Pietro’s menacing chromatics and wobbly microtones over Kimbrough’s tinkle be a cartoonish take on a Bill Gates type?  When everything completely and abruptly falls apart, leaving only glitches behind, Schneider leaves no doubt that the data lords are doomed – and as the rest of the record attests, there are better things ahead.

Our Natural World begins with Sanzenin, a steady, calmly pulsing anthem which could be a largescale Claudia Quintet piece with Gary Versace’s terse accordion at the center. Steve Wilson’s coy blippy soprano sax is joined by warmly rippling piano, followed by whimsical conversation between accordion and sax in the carefree Stone Song, a rubato samba with lots of quick staccato bursts from everybody

Kimbrough’s glistening, incisive chords introduce Look Up, trombonist Marshall Gilkes echoing that bright lyricism throughout several solos. Gospel allusions from the piano filter through the orchestra’s lustre: Schneider’s signature colors shine especially in the inventive harmonies between low and high brass. There’s a jaunty son jarocho bounce as it moves along, Versace’s accordion coming to the forefront once more.

Braided Together, the album’s shortest number, is a lustrously triumphant, anthemically pulsing pastoral jazz vehicle for fondly soaring alto from Pietro. Bluebird, the most epic track here, is a throwback to Schneider’s Concert in the Garden days, with Gil Evans sweep and expanse, a muscular rhythmic drive, Kimbrough fueling the upward climb. The rhythm section channel the Meters behind Wilson’s jubilant, blues-tinged alto sax; Versace leaps and spins like a seal in the water. The orchestra reach a blazing peak and then shuffle down to a fadeout

The Sun Waited For Me makes a benedictory coda, glistening highs mingling with burnished lows. Eventually, a soulful, increasingly funky ballad emerges,  McCaslin’s tenor ratcheting up the energy. A career highlight from a group that also includes trumpeters Tony Kadleck and Nadje Nordhuis, trombonist Keith O’Quinn, and George Flynn on the bass trombone.

As you would expect, the web abounds with live performances from Schneider’s rich catalog; at present, this is not one of them. Schneider has had a long-running beef with youtube, and considering what’s happened this year, who can blame her. This is a treasure worth waiting for when it comes out on vinyl. 

October 2, 2020 Posted by | classical music, jazz, Music, music, concert, 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

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