A Composer Ascendant

Maria Schneider keeps her orchestra on its toes with works both challenging and sublime

By the middle of the last century, there were three identifiable schools of jazz: traditional, modern, and Duke Ellington. The permutations were countless by Ellington's death in 1974, but he remained sui generis. One widely accepted historical narrative of jazz holds that breakthroughs were made on the fly by a succession of brilliant soloists (beginning with Louis Armstrong) in exchange with fellow improvisers, leaving the task of codification—the paperwork, as it were—to composers and arrangers. But the greatest jazz composers have been autonomous. Was Monk bebop or did he merely coincide with it, as Ellington did with swing? Was Sun Ra in step with anyone else's avant-garde? The first composer to systematize Ornette Coleman's improvisational gains was Ornette Coleman, and the same could be said of Wayne Shorter. Gil Evans—even early on, when he was mistakenly perceived as an orchestrator for hire—created a compositional identity by accepting only those assignments in keeping with his own sensibility, culminating in his masterpieces with Miles Davis. And what about Mingus, whose most galvanizing music owed as much to his weltschmerz and hair-trigger temper as it did to Ellington or bebop? Whether or not the rank and file followed, every important jazz composer has been sovereign within his or her own sphere—especially those lucky few able to keep their key personnel intact and close at hand for decades, either by paying them out of songwriter's royalties (like Ellington) or by inducing cultlike adoration (like Ra).

Though some might deem it premature to advance Maria Schneider to the pantheon just yet, at 47 she seems to me to have all the qualifications, right down to a core of steadfast orchestra members: "Those guys play her music like they'd take a bullet for her," another composer remarked enviously following a recent performance. Schneider's new Sky Blue makes it easy to hear why. A Gil Evans–like exercise in keeping a melody steadily advancing over suspended chords, "Rich's Piece" is also a showcase for Rich Perry's yearning and eruptive tenor saxophone. Scott Robinson's lithe clarinet is lead dancer on "Aires de Lando," based on tricky Peruvian rhythmic subdivisions and the piece closest in temper to those on Schneider's last release, 2004's Spanish-guided Concert in the Garden. The cresting melody of "The 'Pretty' Road,"Sky Blue's lyrical opener, is simplicity itself—maybe a touch too simple as melodies go, in fact, although Ingrid Jensen's darting flugelhorn adds an element of adventure, while Luciana Souza's wordless vocals on the refrain add poignancy and grandeur. (Offhand, no jazz composer has used the human voice so effectively as an orchestral element since Mike Westbrook utilized Norma Winstone on Love Songs, a 1970 album from England that I doubt influenced Schneider, because most American jazz musicians remain blissfully unaware of it.)

Elsewhere, the title track (and closer) is a eulogy heartbreakingly delivered by soprano saxophonist Steve Wilson amid ensemble amens reminiscent of Keith Jarrett, Pat Metheny, and Carla Bley's similar use of emblematic cadences from white Protestant hymns in place of the black spirituals that hard bop taught us to listen for. And though all these pieces qualify as concertos for a favored instrumentalist, even Sky Blue's 22- minute centerpiece, "Cerulean Skies"— inspired by Schneider's experiences bird-watching in Central Park, and stirring in its depiction of movement and mass (the best parts are like Copland, but not chamber-of-commerce Copland)—awards a privileged moment to tenor saxophonist Donnie McCaslin, the first and most pivotal of three soloists. In this context, his big tone is like an enormous wingspan.

Challenging, Nabokovian, and worthy of the pantheon
Jimmy and Dena Katz
Challenging, Nabokovian, and worthy of the pantheon


Maria Schneider Orchestra
Sky Blue

Gerald Wilson Orchestra
Monterey Moods
Mack Avenue

Harris Eisenstadt
The All Seeing Eye + Octets

Short of dipping into the royalties from "Sophisticated Ladies" or fostering a belief in their own divinity, orchestra leaders win the loyalty of their players by presenting them with better material than they're likely to come up with on their own, and by spotlighting them in settings richer than any rhythm section could provide. But in Schneider's case, no less than it was in Ellington's or Evans's, I'm guessing part of the appeal is in an approach to orchestration that keeps her players on their toes if there's any straightforward section- writing on Sky Blue, I missed it, and you'd have to send away for the scores to figure out the combination of instruments in some of her voicings. Like Concert in the Garden, this one is available only through the ArtistShare website (so are the scores, but for more than $100 each). Most of the feature stories that greeted the previous CD focused on a new business model that's old news by now, but I suspect this isn't the only reason Sky Blue hasn't generated nearly as much attention. Garden represented a young composer's breakthrough, and its ongoing Spanish dance allusions lent its individual pieces conceptual unity. But Schneider's gifts are well established by now, and the operative metaphor on the more varied Sky Blue is "flight"—as much a literary conceit as a musical one, and, paradoxically, harder to put into words than the sensations of dance.

For all of that, Schneider's compositions aren't really impressionistic, or at least not to start. "Each of these pieces began when I cast out a few exploratory tones in search of a meaningful sound," she writes in her liner notes, describing a Nabokovian process of speak, memory. "Given a little gestation time, the seeds of each piece started to pop, revealing something very personal. I found myself on a journey either back in time or deep inside myself, the music expressing even more than I'd consciously felt from the actual experiences." Where she fits in relationship to today's jazz mainstream is a puzzle, because aside from those Spanish rhythms (and those Protestant hymns, if we're talking ECM), she shares little in common with her immediate contemporaries. Where she touches shoulders with the giants, though, is in beckoning us into a private, self-sufficient musical world.

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