Monday, July 27, 2020

The Composer, Her Orchestra, Their Music

Photo: Briene Lermitte
Over the course of her career (which is well into its third decade), composer, arranger, and conductor Maria Schneider has compiled an amazing track record. Nine albums, eight with her Orchestra plus one with soprano Dawn Upshaw, have garnered her six GRAMMY Awards, numerous nominations, and a devoted audience, many willing to give money to support her endeavors. Ms. Schneider was one of the first creators to sign with ArtistShare and has been working with that organization since the release of 2004s "Concert In The Garden".

Cover art: Aaron Horkey
The seeds of her new project with the 18-member Maria Schneider Orchestra, the two-disc "Data Lords", were sown in 2014 when the composer collaborated with David Bowie on his song "Sue (Or In a Season of Crime"––the track appeared on a 2014 compilation and was later re-recorded for Bowie's final album "Blackstar". The first disk, titled "The Digital World", take its edginess not only from the musical experimentation with Bowie but also from Ms. Schneider anger and frustration with the "data farmers", those companies who gather information from users, usually without anyone's permission. For the past decade, the composer has been warning of companies and websites that take your music, use it without your permission, and/ or pay a pittance for that use.  Artists, especially those who are not as famous or who make music that appeals to world-wide audiences, get ripped off on a daily basis, their music shared without compensation. Ms. Schneder has appeared before the US Congressional Subcommittee on Intellectual Property speaking on the topics of "digital rights", copyright infringement, and more.

Photo: David Bazemore
The five songs of "The Digital World" have a darkness fed by the  frustration Ms. Schneider feels. The growl and roar of Ben Monder's guitar is heard throughout those songs, put to good use on "A World Lost" and "Don't Be Evil". The dark sectional writing, the eerie sounds created by Gary Versace on accordion, and the powerful drumming of Johnathan Blake (his debut with the MSO),  the electronics added to the trumpets of Mike Rodriguez and Greg Gisbert, feels new in Ms. Schneider's world. "...Evil", aimed at a failed ad campaign of Google, deconstructs and then reconstructs the melody of "Taps" throughout, giving the music a feeling of dread as well as a political edge.  The sounds of Morse code permeates "CQ CQ Is Anybody There", a piece dedicated to the composer's father who was a devoted ham radio operator.  The satisfaction that the elder Mr. Schneider got from talking to people around the world does not translate to the music.  Underpinned by the bass of Jay Anderson and drummer Blake, the music intimates that the "connections" we make on the Internet are not truly equal to the ones we make "off-line". We may have 500 friends on FaceBook but are no match for sitting down and chatting through the ether with someone a world away.  The dissonance of Gisbert's electronically-modified trumpet, the staccato of the Morse code, the rat-a-tat of the percussion, keep the listener on edge while serving up its dire warnings.

Photo: Siimon
Disk two, "Our Natural World", relates to earlier "pastoral" works of the MSO while still breaking new ground.  "Sanzenin" is a musical tour of an ancient Buddhist temple (found in Japan) posits Versace and his accordion on front of the ensemble (pay close attention to Anderson's excellent bass playing) as one takes a walk through the gardens. The joyful sounds of "Stone Song" adds a healthy touch of levity to the "serious" music and is, arguably, the most fun piece of music the composer and Orchestra have produced to date––the interaction of Versace's accordion with the soprano sax of Steve Wilson is endearing. "Look Up" is a gentle command that we take refuge in the night skys, in the myriad stars and lights we see.  Solos by Frank Kimbrough (piano) and Marshall Gilkes (trombone) stand out as do Blake's drums and the "floating" sounds of the reeds and brass. KImbrough leads the way into "Bluebird" which, after its powerful, soaring, opening melody turns into a spotlight for Wilson's delightful alto sax solo and a superb flight of improvisational fancy from Versace (note the wondrous section writing that serve as the accordionist's dancing partner).

Photo: Kyra Kverno
Two pieces inspired by poet Ted Kooser, "Braided Together" and the album closer "The Sun Waited For Me", are multi-faceted gems.  The former begins slowly but, thanks to Blake's impressive drumming, picks up in intensity as Dave Pietro (alto saxophone) creates his powerful statement. The latter, which was previously recorded by Ms. Schneider with Ms. Fleming on "Winter Morning Walks" as "How Important It Must Be" (the final piece in the medley based on Mr. Kooser's poems), featured the soprano voice interacting with the clarinet of Scott Robinson––here, Gilkes's trombone takes the melody while Donny McCaslin (tenor saxophone) is the primary solo voice.  The impressive work of the various reeds, brass, and accordion open the door for McCaslin's handsome and wide-ranging solo.

Photo: Whit Lane
One cannot just take in all that "Data Lords" contains in one sitting or use the albums as background music. In conversation with Maria Schneider, one can feel the excitement she must enjoy when bringing new music to her ensemble, a group that still contains a number of musicians (eight) who appeared on her 1994 debut "Evanessence".  The job of the attentive listener is to hear the music with fresh ears each time you listen. The Maria Schneider Orchestra, like the Duke Ellington Orchestra, like the best works of Gil Evans, Bob Brookmeyer, and Thad Jones/ Mel Lewis, has a sound all its own. The music comes alive in the creative minds of the musicians, never sounds stale or clich├ęd, while Ms. Schneider works so hard with the engineers and the mastering person to make this music sound so deep and full. If you're not one of those many, many, people who gave money to bring this music to life through ArtistShare, I have no need to convince you that "Data Lords" is splendid.  If you've never heard the MSO, it's time to get these sounds into your life!

For more information plus buying options, go to www.mariaschneider.com.

Personnel:

Maria Schneider (composer, conductor)
Steve Wilson (alto and soprano saxophones, clarinet, flute and alto flute)
Dave Pietro (alto saxophone, clarinet, flute, alto flute, and piccolo)
Rich Perry (tenor saxophone)
Donny McCaslin (tenor saxophone, flute)
Scott Robinson (Bb, bass, and contra-bass clarinet, baritone saxophone, and muson)
Tony Kadleck (trumpet, flugelhorn)
Greg Gisbert (trumpet, flugelhorn)
Nadje Noordhuis (trumpet, flugelhorn)
Mike Rodriguez (trumpet, flugelhorn)
Ryan Keberle (trombone)
Keith O'Quinn (trombone)
Marshall Gilkes (trombone)
George Flynn (bass trombone)
Gary Versace (accordion)
Ben Monder (guitar)
Frank Kimbrough (piano)
Jay Anderson (bass)
Johnathan Blake (drums, percussion)




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