Duke Ellington’s real instrument was his orchestra, Billy Strayhorn once said, echoing the maestro’s own modest assessment of himself as a pianist. This was part truth, part subterfuge. A descendant of James P. Johnson and other Harlem ticklers for whom piano was an orchestra within hands’ reach, Ellington was no slouch. Not every important jazz composer has also qualified as a seminal improviser like Benny Carter, Thelonious Monk, Wayne Shorter, Charles Mingus, or Ornette Coleman. But it’s tough to name many who didn’t play at all, even if some abandoned their horns after finding themselves on paper and a few sat themselves at a piano just to see to it that their music got performed frequently and performed right.
Maria Schneider’s orchestra is her only instrument, which in addition to making Schneider something of a curiosity means it’s big band or nothing for her. As a non-performer, she can’t try out ideas on jobs with small groups, and although she did arrange a ballad on Phish’s Undermind, she’s apparently uninterested in the sort of work-for-hire that sustained Gil Evans prior to his LP collaborations with Miles Davis. Like Evans—her chief mentor, along with Bob Brookmeyer—Schneider is a perfectionist who takes pride in not being prolific: She was just as glad when she lost her regular Monday-night gig at a downtown club a few years ago, she told me after the fact, because not feeling pressured to introduce new material gave her the luxury of taking her time. Fortunately, her pieces are usually worth the wait—never more so than with the stunning new Concert in the Garden, her first release in four years and her fifth in 12 years, counting a 2000 live CD distributed by a winery.
Available only online, Concert in the Garden is a studio recording despite its title, taken from a poem by Octavio Paz. Given Schneider’s tinkering with such dance forms as choro and flamenco—along with an “imaginary foxtrot” more evocative of Brazil than of Fred and Ginger—it’s tempting to describe this as her Latin album. But Schneider’s harmonic textures and rhythmic motifs suggest Evans’s Sketches of Spain, Mingus’s Tijuana Moods, and portions of his Black Saint and the Sinner Lady rather than anything by Eddie Palmieri or Chucho Valdés. Evans’s residual influence is most discernible in the blend of nostalgia and existential chill on the aforementioned foxtrot, “Dança Illusoria,” the final movement of a three-part suite that also includes “Choro Dançado” and “Pas de Deux,” an improvised duet between Ingrid Jensen’s trumpet and Charles Pillow’s soprano that could be unfolding in midair. The resemblance to Mingus is probably coincidental, but it’s impossible not to think of him instructing Charlie Mariano to play tears at a pivotal moment on Black Saint as you listen to Donny McCaslin wailing at length over a suspended chord on “Buleria, Solea y Rumba”—like Rich Perry’s quicksilver tenor solo on “Choro Dançado” and the running of the bulls at the end, an exciting moment on an album that spills over with them.
That I should mention Mingus along with Evans will give you an idea of the company Schneider now belongs in. The soloists here convey an immediacy that was frequently lacking on her earlier recordings, which is to her credit as well as theirs; she’s learned how to showcase improvisers, perhaps the truest measure of a jazz composer’s skills. Another sign of growth is her inspired use of Luciana Souza’s voice as a kind of highlighting pen on three numbers, which allows the ear to isolate the melodies from a network of competing harmonic details (and Schneider’s unconventional groupings of horns across sections sing so readily on their own you sometimes imagine you’re hearing Souza when she’s not there). The title opener is the only performance that wants for momentum, although it boasts especially imaginative writing for accordion and low brass, along with shapely, reflective solos by pianist Frank Kimbrough and guitarist Ben Monder. Having danced only in her head on the CD, Schneider added flamenco dancer La Conja to “Buleria, Solea y Rumba” for her JVC concert at the Kaye Playhouse last month.
La Conja’s crisp handclaps and precise body language emboldened Schneider’s rhythms and made them more vivid, though the trade-off was reducing the musicians to onlookers for a short stretch. The normally judicious Ben Ratliff gushed that a new piece inspired by a Kandinsky painting of intersecting circles conveyed “what it feels like to be intersecting circles” (italics in original). Sounds like something on Sesame Street, but I agree with what Ratliff was getting at—Schneider’s musical subjectivity, which reveals itself most clearly in the autobiographical strain running through her pieces, many of which revolve around childhood memories. I hesitate to label these feminine characteristics, because few jazz composers were more subjective than Mingus, and Ellington never shied away from autobiography (except in Music Is My Mistress). On the other hand, I doubt a sideman ever asked Mingus for a date during a set, as happened to Schneider years ago, or that Ellington ever broke down and sobbed onstage, as Schneider did at Kaye in announcing a piece dedicated to a recently deceased friend. When prompting from the piano failed to elicit the exact tempo he desired from his band, Ellington would stand up and conduct with his hips. We haven’t yet progressed to the point where an attractive woman like Schneider could wiggle hers without being accused of exploiting her wiles. Besides, she’s much too inhibited a conductor to serve as an audience’s onstage proxy, as Ellington happily did. And yet she’s no less forcefully there in her music than he was, even though not one note issues directly from her.