Monday, December 10, 2007

Maria Schneider Orchestra and Sky Blue

If you’ve listened to enough big band jazz, you recognize the pattern easily enough. After the tempo is counted off, the trumpets often roar in with the straight melody, establishing authority and expectations. The theme is handed off, quite frequently to the reed section, who takes the ball and runs with it, generally with a solo taken from within its ranks, only to be answered with a brass solo, followed by a headlong rush with sections trading off eight bar riffs, the rhythm section churning away, concluding with the return of the melody at full blast, and stopping on a dime. In the hands of a gifted composer/arranger like Stan Kenton, Count Basie, Billy Strayhorn, or even the more recent examples of Carla Bley and Toshiko Akiyoshi, the result can be thrilling. But Maria Schneider is in a different game altogether. Her most recent release, Sky Blue, is the culmination of a career dedicated to making a big band sound symphonic and evocative.

Schneider, an admitted protégé of the legendary Gil Evans, who made his arrangements of Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess sound like a string of jazz concertos for band and trumpet (the horn belonging to his partner Miles Davis) has been quietly building an impressive catalog over 20 years. Her music may be challenging to the musician, but it sounds effortless and natural to the listener.

Sky Blue starts simply enough with a pop-like tribute to her home town in rural Minnesota. “The Pretty Road” is a showcase for trumpet soloist Ingrid Jensen, who soars above the band trilling and darting in and out of registers like a kite against a Minnesota sky. Lyric-less vocals from Luciana Souza add an other-worldly air to the piece, which concludes almost abruptly, not unlike passing the Minnesota town of Windom where Schneider grew up on an adjacent interstate.

“Aires de Lando,” despite the Peruvian title, almost sounds like Klezmer waltz at the beginning, thanks to the prominent clarinet of Scott Robinson. Written in 12/8, the trombones provide a pulsing foundation to the tune, as slowly the meter becomes more complex and colorful. Listening to it, I could picture in my mind’s eye an elderly couple sliding across a dance floor in an elegant tango.

The showcase of this CD is “Cerulean Skies,” Schneider’s mediation on birds, and in particular the cerulean warbler, whose recorded call makes an appearance at the end of the piece (other birdcalls are courtesy of the musicians including Jensen, Rich Perry and Schneider herself). Schneider writes extensively in her liner notes about the joys of being a bird enthusiast in New York City. She tells us that in Central Park, not far from her home, “you can easily be transported to a forest far from humanity.” “Cerulean Skies” is definitely a piece about flight, and at over 20 minutes, is a piece that requires a listener’s full attention. Donny McCaslin’s tenor sax brings the listener in mind of a bird circling over a landscape, incessantly calling to its companions (or its mate?) while engaging in aerial gymnastics that a lesser creature attached to the land would envy. Gary Versace’s solo on accordion brings a new dimension to an instrument that is usually relegated to polka bands and novelty acts. The shrill tones, which fade in and out and held a beat longer than you’re prepared for, provide not only some level of tension, but are creatively resolved when chords provide the notion of a squadron of birds singing together.

Schneider’s previous album, Concert in the Garden, received widespread attention when it became the first CD
sold exclusively on the Internet to win a Grammy Award. Sky Blue received considerable attention in the jazz press, owing to the sponsorships that Schneider solicited to assist in the cost of producing the finished product. Schneider sells her work through her Web site, which connects to ArtistShare, which is slowly picking up steam in the world of music commerce. While the business model remains intriguing, it has, unfortunately, overshadowed the resulting music. Coming off a Grammy-winning album can’t be easy, but the musical depth of Sky Blue easily surpasses the excellent Concert in the Garden. It is glorious.

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