A year and a half ago, Rifftides reported to you about an extraordinary concert the Maria Schneider Orchestra played at Jazz Alley in Seattle. Schneider was two days away from her Los Angeles premier of a new work commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association, so in Seattle she kept “Aires de Lando” under wraps. In Schneider’s CD Sky Blue, those who were not in Disney Concert Hall that night can hear the piece.
An adventure in unusual time signatures, Peruvian rhythms and percussion, “Aires de Lando” emerges as a highlight of Schneider’s remarkable new CD. Her orchestration supports, enfolds and at times all but engulfs a compelling extended clarinet solo etched by Scott Robinson on layers of Schneider’s harmonic richness. The piece is reminiscent of BartÃ³k, not in style but in its melding of complex rhythms and textures with folk simplicity of melody. That is true of much of this album, among her six CDs the finest expression of the composer’s restless and evolving talent.
The Jazz Alley concert included two pieces that are in Sky Blue, the title work and “The Pretty Road.” Here’s what I wrote about them in February, 2006
It is a writer’s band, and the writer populates it with musicians who play her demanding compositions with virtuoso skill and provide ensemble cohesiveness that can come only from long, close association. Most of the band’s members have been with Schneider as long as Robinson has. They are from the cream of New York players and include some of the music’s most individual improvisers in a period of jazz not overflowing with individuality.. Among the memorable soloists at Jazz Alley was Steve Wilson on “Sky Blue,” a new composition. Schneider told the audience that she wrote it after a friend died. It is a hymn, not a dirge. Wilson’s soprano saxophone tone has breadth and depth rather than the pinched snake-charmer sound favored by many who play the horn. His solo was a marvel of structural unity and passionate delivery. “He took my breath away,” said the woman on the next bar stool, “he’s beautiful.”
A new Schneider piece,”The ‘Pretty’ Road,” is yet to be recorded, something to anticipate. It has to do with her memories of growing up in Windom, Minnesota, “the environment of my past,” she said. She has layered into it little references to things she recalls–church music, childhood songs, a meadowlark, the sight of the town from a hilltop at night. It is program music of a high order. She featured on flugelhorn and trumpet Ingrid Jensen, who soloed with the self-editing of increased maturity that leavens her spirited virtuosity. The dynamics of Schneider’s ensembles in the piece were meticulously shaped–almost micro-managed–by her graceful but definite conducting.
Wilson in “Sky Blue” and Jensen in “The ‘Pretty’ Road” solo again on the CD with, if anything, even greater cogency and passion. Schneider extends the practice of her mentor Gil Evans and his inspiration Duke Ellington of writing with specific musicians in mind. In “Rich’s Piece,” the only soloist is tenor saxophonist Rich Perry, a charter member of Schneider’s band and a veteran of the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Orchestra.
In her album notes, Schneider writes that the music, “asked to be nothing other than a meditation–the chance to ponder the beauty of sound, in particular, Rich’s sound, and the orchestra would just cloak him in a sonic robe.” Operating in the sparest of harmonic environments but cloaked in that luxurious robe, Perry reaches into his imagination and applies his mastery of the instrument to sustain beauty, and the listener’s interest, in a performance of nearly ten minutes.
Inspired by the depth and direction of Schneider’s writing, tenor saxophonist Donny McCaslin, accordianist Gary Versace and alto saxophonist Charles Pillow are impressive as the soloists in the twenty-two minutes of “Cerulean Blue.” Reflecting her attachment to birds and bird song, Schneider begins the piece with bird calls as if in a forest and develops it as an expression of her wonder at the miracle of birds and bird migration. She accomplishes that flight of imagination so evocatively that the listener is likely to absorb the idea without recourse to her program notes.
With her previous CD, Concert in the Garden, Schneider took her recording affairs into her own hands. She releases only through ArtistShare, a service designed to help musicians circumvent the traditional recording industry and receive more of the money they earn. A key part of the system is that listeners provide contributions to ArtistShare artists. A major contributor to Schneider’s Sky Blue project was rewarded with the title of executive producer and pictured in the forty-page extra booklet that comes with the deluxe edition of the CD. Gold, silver and bronze contriubutors got prominent mentions. I don’t know how extensive the market is for this kind of independent financing of musicians, but for Schneider, it’s working. Concert in the Garden won a Grammy. It will be a surprise if Sky Blue is not nominated for one.
How do other musicians feel about Schneider’s music and about her success? To my knowledge, there has been no survey on that question, but my sense is that Schneider’s contemporaries, many older musicians and–almost universally–those in the generation behind hers, admire her work and are pleased that so talented and uncompromising a composer and leader receives recognition. Darcy James Argue, a young composer and operator of his own big band, may have spoken for them in this item in his web log.