Nature Evolves toward the Beautiful: The Maria Schneider Orchestra at the Jazz Standard (November 28, 2014)

Every year the Maria Schneider Orchestra takes up residency at the Jazz Standard. This year they’re celebrating their 10th anniversary with an engagement that continues through November 30, 2014. I joined them on Friday, November 28th, for the 10pm set.

The Orchestra began with “Dance You Monster to My Soft Song” from Evanescence, Schneider’s 1994 debut album on Enja Records. The first solo space went to Steve Wilson on soprano saxophone, who occupied the lead alto chair in the ensembles. The subtle, textural backgrounds behind Wilson’s solo built in intensity, and presaged a theme of the performance—and one of the hallmarks of Schneider’s Orchestra—the mutual inspiration between the soloist and the ensemble. Soloists are compelled by Schneider’s writing as performed by their bandmates but also by her careful conducting: the composed backgrounds provide soloists with natural arcs, while the individual improvisations provide emergent, exciting, and surprising transitions between written sections of each composition’s form.

From the first downbeat, Clarence Penn (drums) and Jay Anderson (upright bass) were dialed in, locked in with each other and with the Orchestra. Penn’s intimate knowledge of the charts showed through his exquisitely timed and tasteful fills that set up the band perfectly. Penn and Anderson anchored the entire performance, demonstrating again how Schneider’s inclusion and direction of exemplary individual musicians leads to a transformative musical experience.

During her introduction of the second tune, Schneider invited the audience to help finalize its name. Schneider describes “(The) Monarch and the Milkweed,” which was recorded on the Orchestra’s new album, The Thompson Fields (available April 2015), as a statement of how “nature evolves toward the beautiful.” As an example, Schneider invoked bowerbirds, whose mating rituals have developed over time to include a highly choreographed dance and the construction of elaborately designed, painstakingly maintained structures to attract potential partners.

The title of Schneider’s composition refers to Monarch butterfly and the milkweed plant, which it requires as sustenance and for procreation: the plant is the site and host of the transformative process from which the Monarch butterfly emerges. Schneider’s piece—a slow ballad that begins with a flute duet, then adds alto flute and bass clarinet—features trombonist Marshall Gilkes, who provided one of the evening’s musical highlights. Gilkes performed beautifully and captivated the audience with a truly compelling and inspired improvisation, one of the most spectacular moments of the performance wherein individual expression triumphed within context of Schneider’s writing and execution of her Orchestra. Gilkes’s expressive solo carefully managed thematic material with improvised phrases, with the trombonist demonstrating superior command of his instrument, floating over harmonic changes, expertly managing his phrasing, and building anticipation and energy in his solo through varying subdivisions of the beat. In “(The) Monarch and the Milkweed,” Schneider’s prowess for crafting sonic textures was on full display: her attention to matching and interchanging timbres amid already engaging melodic counterpoint and harmonic inventiveness elevated her music to sublime heights.

The performance continued with “Lembrança” (Portuguese for “remembrance”), which commemorates Schneider’s recent trip to Brazil during which she accompanied the great Brazilian musician Paulo Moura on a visit to his hometown’s samba school. The piece, which Schneider completed on the same day that Moura passed away in 2010, featured invited guest Rogerio Boccato on percussion, along with Ryan Keberle on trombone, and Gary Versace on accordion. Versace began the melodic statement, with the Orchestra behind him, slowly building to that characteristic feel that was reminiscent—but not an exact replication—of the sambas heard at Carnaval celebrations. Schneider rephrased what I describe to my music students as “sitting down on the second beat,” that weighty, resonant accent that typifies Brazilian samba, with such expression and lightness.

Keberle’s solo was another highlight, accented by Boccato’s work on the small, Brazilian pandeiro drum and more solid rhythm section work by Penn and Anderson, who drove  composition with energy and excitement, again by manipulating the subdivisions of the beat (switching between 16th-note and quarter-note feels). Schneider’s masterfully written backgrounds engage the audience, making anticipation of a samba “breakout” palpable, without ever giving it away fully. This is just one small example of her attention to narrative and developmental arc within a composition. A surprising shift to a slower tempo—with no loss of intensity in the samba feel—serves as transition to Versace’s reentry on accordion with a more reflective tone in a duet section with bassist Anderson. It’s hard not to read the music programmatically (as related to Moura’s passing) given Schneider’s introduction, but I wonder whether we should even try not to: Schneider wants to make sure we’re understanding her relationship to the music she’s written. Any audience will undoubtedly hear that music through their own experiences but with guidance of the spoken introduction she gives each piece.

“Lembrança” ends contemplatively, with Penn and Boccato orchestrating a gradual build back up to the heightened samba feel. I would describe the piece as an absorption of samba into Schneider’s voice: this is not an imitative treatment, but a transformational one, with minute details like manipulations of tempo and counterpoint within the trombone section (splitting the section between melodic statements and doubling Anderson on samba bass line) demonstrating the degree to which Schneider has made this piece and the iconic style her own.

The title track of the new recording project, “The Thompson Fields,” followed. Before the piece began, Schneider described a recent trip the Orchestra took to her hometown and surrounding areas in Minnesota. By her own admission, Schneider’s work is informed by nostalgia for her upbringing there, with particular focus on connection to its natural environment. Sharing this embodied experience of the land with her musicians grounded the performance of the compositions such that all the musicians were performing with a lived connection to the distant memories Schneider drew on in her compositions. “The Thompson Fields” is highly expressive, orchestral writing—the work that has earned Schneider a singular level of honor and distinction among her peers. What, as a musician and an audience member, I can only describe as transcendent. Pianist Frank Kimbrough contributed a pair of solos, partly composed and partly improvised, which introduced a haunting level of dissonance and polytonal complication to an otherwise bucolic setting. Once again I was drawn to Schneider’s expert mixture of textures: the list of instrumental doublings her musicians have to fulfill is dizzying, but is essential to achieving the highly crafted and evocative palette of timbres that characterize Schneider’s writing.

Multi-instrumentalist Scott Robinson delivered another one of the evening’s highlights with his featured performance on “Walking by Flashlight” from the album Winter Morning Walks. The album was a collaboration with soprano Dawn Upshaw, with poetry written by Ted Kooser. Schneider recited the poem prior to the song’s performance, which showcased Robinson on alto clarinet, accompanied by Versace on accordion and the rhythm section. Robinson’s playing was fluid and highly expressive. With a keen sensitivity to the ebb and flow of Schneider’s writing, he crafted a magnificent performance of motives, short sequential phrases, and flourishes, floating over the Orchestra’s backgrounds, and blurring the line between improvisation and composition beautifully.

The final performance of the set was “Coming About,” a piece about sailing in Schneider’s Minnesota from “Scenes from Childhood,” a 1995 commission by the Monterey Jazz Festival. Pianist Kimbrough provided another solid improvisation in the piece which featured saxophonist Donny McCaslin. Throughout the entire set, Schneider provided ample space for the musicians in her Orchestra, all accomplished bandleaders and soloists themselves. By honing in on smaller groupings within the ensemble, Schneider constantly introduces new elements and fresh perspectives within each piece, using the progressions and narrative arcs she has composed as launching pads for the individual contributions of each of the Orchestra’s members. Their improvisations and soloists simultaneously act as important formal transitions that reciprocally drive the Orchestra forward. This symbiotic relationship was on full display during McCaslin’s feature: Schneider’s masterful conducting during the tenor saxophonist’s solo—directing rhythm section and band to next section—not only made McCaslin sound even better but compelled him to perform at a higher level. By building in signposts that create a “natural” shape to each piece’s improvisations, Schneider creates resonances among the soloists’ stories that echo and augment her own. The collective expression is infinitely richer because of individual interpretations of the narrative that Schneider has set out.

This collective experience translates to the audience as well. Schneider’s warm, welcoming presence, which she shares through her music and stories about them, creates a sense of community and mutual respect with those who listen to the performance. I wonder whether we the audience, then, act like the soloists in her Orchestra: bringing our own ideas, thoughts, and experiences to each performance, guided and inspired by her direction and composition. And while it may seem apropos to continue these comparisons and similes that draw connections between environment, aesthetics, Schneider’s programmatic introductions, and the performance of the Orchestra—for example to cast Schneider as a bowerbird who uses sounds as found objects culled from her surroundings to woo us, her audience, or perhaps to consider the Orchestra as milkweed and each soloist as individual, improvising monarchs—I think such equivalencies are too easy. They naturalize Schneider’s abilities as well as those of her musicians, erasing the dedication and virtuosity that comes only from decades of committed practice and refinement of their art. It may well be that nature evolves toward the beautiful. But, although the personal transparency of Schneider’s music may make it seem natural and its beauty may be undeniable, what’s lost in these comparisons—and what’s of paramount importance—is Schneider’s masterful writing, direction, conducting and the sheer instrumental mastery of her Orchestra.

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