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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

Epic, Stormy Grandeur From Mike Holober and the Gotham Jazz Orchestra

Pianist Mike Holober has been busy as an arranger lately – his charts for the NDR Bigband are out-of-the-box exquisite – but has made a welcome return to his role as leader of the Gotham Jazz Orchestra. Their epic new double album Hiding Out – streaming at Spotify – is the Grand Canyon Suite of jazz. Its initial inspirations are the grandeur of the American West, and a long-abused tributary that flows into Manhattan Harbor. Its boundless energy and intensity are pure New York. If you need music that makes your pulse race, this is your fix.

Built around a suspenseful “over here!” riff, the practically fourteen-minute opening diptych, Jumble, takes on a catchy, cantering maracatu pulse, with gusts from around the orchestra bursting in and out of the sonic picture: if Carl Nielsen had been a jazz guy, he might have sounded like this. Holober’s low-key Rhodes solo offers barely a hint of how far alto saxophonist Jon Gordon’s crescendo is going to go; likewise, guitarist Jesse Lewis’ waves upward into the combustible stratosphere.

Most of the rest of the album is two suites. Flow, a Hudson River epic, begins with lushly acidic, shifting tectonic sheets over a suspenseful tiptoe beat: the effect when the low brass and bass enter is nothing short of magnificent but just as ominous (look what the industrial revolution did to New York waterways). A subtle shift to a quasi-samba groove with towering horns recedes for a poignant Jason Rigby tenor solo against Holober’s glittering piano, part Messiaen, part Fats Waller in calm mode. Somberly blustery variations on a minor blues bassline anchor devious horn exchanges: is that competing ferries honking at each other?

That’s just the first part! This monstrosity tops the forty minute mark. Part two, Opalescence is slightly less expansive (eleven-minute), darker and more resonantly concise variation on the opening theme – Chuck Owen’s similarly titanic River Runs suite comes to mind. Marvin Stamm’s trumpet weaves slowly in and out, Holober slowly developing an achingly lyrical interlude. This may be a lazy river sometimes, but it’s deep. The concluding chapter, Harlem is introduced via a brooding interlude featuring piano and flute, seemingly a shout-out to the Lenapes who tended this land before the murderous Europeans arrived. Billy Drewes’ carefree solo alto sax kicks off Holober’s hard-swinging salute to New York’s original incubator for jazz, Scott Wendholdt’s trumpet flurrying away as the music shifts toward a more 21st century milieu and an ineluctable return to the turbulence of the river itself. The band take a jubilant dixieland-flavored romp out,

The title suite – a Wyoming big-sky tableau – opens with austere woodwinds, building to a enigmatically charged atmosphere that grows more broodingly Darcy James Argue-tinged as the cleverly implied melody of the second movement, Compelled, looms into focus. Holober works the low/high and jaunty/sinister contrasts for all they’re worth, Steve Cardenas’ guitar leaping through the raindrops. John Hebert’s spring-loaded bass pulse mingled within the bandleader’s fanged neoromantic solo.

A pair of miniatures – a bright, enveloping interlude and a moody piano theme – lead into the symphonic conclusion, It Was Just the Wind. Holober picks up the pace with a syncopated, somewhat icy solo intro, then the orchestra rise to a qawwali-ish triplet groove with lush horn exchanges, a leaping Gordon alto solo and a more enigmatic one from tenor saxophonist Adam Kolker against sparely wary piano and guitar. Although Holober eventually interpolates a warmly pastoral theme amid the swells and slashes, whatever was out there was closer to Blair Witch territory than the Lone Ranger out on the range.

The ensemble wind up the album with an expansively orchestrated take of Jobim’s Carminhos Cruzados, a wide palette built around Stamm’s tenderly resonant phrasing and pinwheeling clarity. There hasn’t been such an electrifying big band record released in many months, an early contender for best jazz album of the year from an inspired cast that also includes Dave Pietro, Ben Kono and Charles Pillow on reeds; Steve Kenyon and Carl Maraghi on baritone sax and bass clarinet; Tony Kadleck, Liesl Whitaker and James de LaGarza on trumpets; Tim Albright, Mark Patterson, Alan Ferber, Bruce Eidem and Pete McGuinness on trombones; Nathan Durham on bass trombone; Jay Azzolina on guitar; Mark Ferber and Jared Schonig sharing the drum chair and Rogerio Boccato on percussion.

February 20, 2020 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Perennially Vital, Poignant, Epic Grandeur From the John Hollenbeck Large Ensemble

In the history of jazz, is there a greater drummer/composer than John Hollenbeck?

Paul Motian wrote some great songs. And so has Tain Watts. Beyond that, it’s a short list. This past evening at the Poisson Rouge Hollenbeck and his long-running Large Ensemble validated his place on it with a lush, constantly shifting, uneasily enveloping set to celebrate the release of their latest album All Can Work.

As with the album, the centerpiece of the show was the title track, a dedication to his longtime collaborator, the late great Laurie Frink. Hollenbeck interpolated both brief, pithy phrases inspired by Frink’s trumpet etudes as well as excerpts from her similarly terse emails. Like Mozart but with infinitely more interesting rhythms, those phrases percolated and changed shape among subsets of the sixteen-piece ensemble as singer Theo Bleckmann’s voice loomed and eventually soared. “I will miss you all, and the music,” was the final mantra. The trumpet section, including but not limited to Tony Kadleck and Matt Holman, put their precision in the spotlight. This was a song, and a show about tunesmithing and narratives rather than displays of sizzling chops.

They’d opened with Elf, which takes its title and thematic grist from the Strayhorn piece that Ellington eventually appropriated for Isfahan. As the group’s tectonic sheets slowly built a lavish mosaic, alto saxophonist Anna Webber rose methodically to broodingly modal, Middle Eastern-tinged intensity while Hollenbeck did a somewhat more vigorous take on the kind of pointillism he likes to explore in the Claudia Quintet.

The night’s most lavishly shapeshifting number was Hollenbeck’s muscular arrangement of Kenny Wheeler’s Heyoke: among its several solos, a bittersweet couple of turns from tenor saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock and some deliciously deadpan piano voicings from vibraphonist Patricia Brennan stood out the most brightly. From Trees, inspired by a Mondrian triptych, rose out of a swirl of disembodied voices to emphatic variations on a series of rather stark riffs, down to a twisted, low-register corkscrew facsimile of boogie-woogie from pianist Matt Mitchell: it was the most unexpectedly stunning solo of the night.

Long Swing Dream, the one song to date that Hollenbeck has found in a dream, had a similar minmalism alternating between individual voices, Bleckmann providing an amusing bit of narration by reading Cary Grant commentary about LSD (Long Swing Dream, get it?). The final observation, “You can’t judge the day until the night,” became simply “You can’t judge,” which drew plenty of chuckles. Hollenbeck copped to never having tried the stuff – hey, there’s still time. You can’t judge the perception from the doors.

The final tune was Hollenbeck’s tongue-in-cheek, impressively swinging new arrangement of Kraftwerk’s motorik instrumental The Model. Again, Bleckmann got to entertain the crowd, this time simply by striking a pose or five as the group channeled a more subtle take on what German live techno crew the Jazzrausch Bigband might have done with it. Hollenbeck’s next gig is with the Claudia Quintet on March 24 at 8 PM at the Miller Theatre; tix as affordable as $20 are still available.

January 30, 2018 Posted by | concert, jazz, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Mighty, Majestic Big Band Debut from Christopher Zuar

Let’s say you want to start your career with a real bang. You don’t just want to slip in via the back door – you want to smash a grand slam on the first pitch you see in the majors. That’s pretty much what Christopher Zuar did with his debut recording, Musings, which hasn’t hit Spotify yet although there are a few tracks up at Sunnyside Records’ page. With the aid of producer Mike Holober, the young-ish (20s) composer assembled a titanic nineteen-piece crew of some of this era’s most distinguished names in big band jazz to play his lavish, lyrical charts. The result is the year’s best jazz debut – nothing else comes close. They’re playing Symphony Space on Dec 15 at 7:30 PM; cover is $22. If large ensemble jazz is your thing, you’d be crazy to miss this.

Zuar comes out of the Jim McNeely school of lush jazz orchestration, and there are echoes of the serpentine sweep of Maria Schneider as well here. But ultimately, this a toweringly individualistic statement. For all the epic gramdeur, there’s purpose, and drive, and eclectic influences as diverse as latin, Brazilian and baroque music.The opening track, Remembrance, springboards off a very simple octave riff and builds tension around a root note, in a Marc Ribot vein. At the center is a long, expressively nuanced Dave Pietro alto sax solo.

Frank Carlberg’s austere piano opens the steady, Bach-inspired Chaconne with a sly allusion to an infamous Led Zep riff, drummer Mark Ferber’s misterioso brushwork and bassist John Hebert’s minimalistic punches grounding the bright, brassy swells overhead as Zuar works another famous tune into the equation. Disquieting echo phrases mingle and flutter as Vulnerable States opens, Jo Lawry’s crystalline vocalese sailing over an uneasy, latin-tinged bustle: Zuar employs that superb voice as impactfully as Asuka Kakitani did with Sara Serpa on her similar blockbuster of a debut a couple of years ago.

Ha! (The Joke’s On You) – a shout-out to Zuar’s bubbe – references the baroque with its call-and-response along with a fiery, horn-driven vaudevillian funk surrealism driven by Pete McCann’s frenetically crescendoing wah guitar. Artfully fragmented voices intersperse, converge and then join forces as the ballad So Close Yet So Far Away coalesces, tenor player Jason Rigby’s turn from wistful to gritty triumph taking centerstage, down to a long, suspenseful outro.

Anthem has chattering Brazilian tinges, a dancing bass solo and a big vocal hook from Lawry,. Lonely Road, a reflection on the systematic destruction of Zuar’s beloved West Village in the ongoing blitzkrieg of gentrification, is a gem of a miniature rich with elegaic counterpoint: it quietly screams out for the composer to make a big wrecking ball out of it like the other numbers here.

The album winds up with its lone cover, a lithely bittersweet take of Egberto Gismonti’s 7 Anéis,  a striking, nebulously furtive interlude punctuated by swirly soprano sax at its center. This album is genuinely spectacular effort that also comprises the inspired, energetic work of woodwind players Ben Kono, Lucas Pino and Brian Landrus, trumpeters Tony Kadleck, Jon Owens, Mat Jodrell and Matt Holman, trombonists Tim Albright, Matt McDonald, Alan Ferber and Max Seigel. You’ll see this as this blog’s pick for best jazz debut of 2016 when the full list is published at NPR next week.

December 10, 2016 Posted by | 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