What can I write about Maria Schneider’s Disney Hall concert after Mr. Rifftides has so eloquently covered the main points in his Seattle report? – Scott Robinson’s “technical control and emotional range” the breadth and depth of Steve Wilson’s soprano sax solo, a description of Maria’s childhood home (Windom, MN), and memorable solos by Ingrid Jensen and others, not to mention the longevity of the band and loyalty of the musicians. The last line in the Maria Schneider at Jazz Alley posting is so perfect that I wish I had thought to write those three simple sentences. So what more can I tell you?
Well, for starters, I’d like to digress. Just before heading off to Seattle to see the band, Rifftides mentioned big band economics: “There must be staggering economics involved in transporting a big band from New York to the west, then up and down the coast. I’m glad that it can still be done.” I’m here to tell you that it can’t be done, not without underwriting or just plain going in the hole. Promoters do not pay jazz artists enough to cover the transportation, rooms, and musicians’ fees for small groups let alone big bands. That’s why so many artists come to town alone and “pick up” local musicians. Having been Maria’s manager at one time, I know that she pays her musicians well (especially compared to some other leaders) and that on occassion she has netted less on a gig than anyone else in the band. I have even seen her take a loss (yes, pay out of her own pocket) because for the sake of the music she wants more rehearsal time and pays for that as well. Add in manager and agent commissions and an artist’s slice of the pie is often just a sliver.
Of course, while artists pay out those commissions, as a Composer (note the capital C, signifying a difference from those musicians who also happen to write some tunes), Maria also receives Commissions; a number of schools and organizations have commissioned compositions, several of which were featured on the program. You’ve got to have something to live on while you sit in a room and write your heart out.
Now, about the concert — the benefit of a concert venue over that of a club is that the listener gets to hear what amounts to two sets, and the performer/leader, in this case Maria, gets to stretch out the building tension and moments of release; the end of the first half is climactic, but the stakes increase as even greater heights are scaled in the second half.
Maria opened the program with Concert in the Garden, a piece commissioned by The Kaye Playhouse at Hunter College and the title track of her Grammy winning CD. (I would be remiss if I did not note here that the concert took place on Grammy night, mere blocks away from the Staples Center where her friend and colleague Billy Childs won this year’s jazz composer award, an announcement Maria shared with great joy from the stage.) Featuring Gary Versace on accordion, Ben Monder on guitar, and Frank Kimbrough on piano, the audience plunged headlong into Maria’s world of unique and complex aural textures.
The second selection is actually part one of a three-part suite (Three Romances commissioned by the University of Miami School of Music). Choro Dançado, influenced by the Brazilian choro (pronounced SHOH-roh), has amazing energy and sweet rhythms that grew amazingly intricate underneath a soaring melody, Rich Perry’s solo, and richly thick harmonies with a baritone bottom do deep as to be tuba-esque. In Portuguese the word choro means “to cry.” The third piece, Journey Home (from her Allégresse CD) featured saxman Charlie Pillow, a trombone solo by Rock Ciccarone, very tasty drum licks by Clarence Penn, and a surprise ending.
The first half culminated with one of my personal favorites, El Viento. This, too, was a commission (Carnegie Hall, 1994). Just as Mr. Rifftides said of Robinson’s Sea of Tranquility solo, so will I say of El Viento soloists Ben Monder, Larry Farrell and Greg Gisbert, “familiarity breeds insights.”– they have evolved since their 1995 recording of this piece on the Coming About CD. Many of Maria’s compositions are internal landscapes and I imagine riding the wind (el viento) through Maria’s mind, following the twists and turns and changes of mood, truly a journey, and one that ends with orgasmic intensities followed by the sweet release of an afterglow embrace. A great way to end the first half and leave the audience wanting more.
During intermission I saw many notables in the audience – conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen, vocalist Dianne Reeves (who also won a Grammy that day – hats off to her wonderful performances in the movie “Good Night, And Good Luck”), Don Grusin, and Peter Sellars, to name a few. I am really sorry that the concert was labeled as “jazz,” because the classical snobs would have loved it had they deigned to come.
The second half opened with a brand new piece, a swaying, hip, poly-rhythmic Peruvian-influenced composition – I think the title is Landau. I don’t know how two cajón players (John Wikan and Peruvian percussionist Hugo Alcaraz) and a drummer (Clarence Penn) can articulate such a multi-metered collage without tripping over themselves and each other. Add in Scott Robinson on clarinet and you’re in heaven, or Peru, or anywhere other than here.
The next two compositions The Pretty Road and Sky Blue were well-covered by Mr. Rifftides. All I might add is that The Pretty Road was commissioned by a group of Massachusetts colleges, and Sky Blue, a poignant and crystalline dedication to her friend, Kate, who died after a long and valiant battle with cancer, was debuted a few years ago at The Kaye Playhouse at Hunter College.
The last piece was another personal favorite: Hang Gliding (it’s also on the Allégresse CD). First you are lulled by what Maria describes as “hanging on this thermal” depicted by Greg Gisbert, and then follows Donny McCaslin’s multi-metered scary descent on saxophone until finally you land gently on the beach. This piece is so exhilarating that it makes me want to go hang gliding, and that’s saying a lot ‘cause I am terrified of heights. Truth be told, there was an encore, but I don’t remember anything after Hang Gliding.
If by any chance you are not familiar with Maria’s music, please rectify the situation as soon as possible…now would be good. Here’s her website – click on ‘maria Schneider radio’ button, top right corner of your screen, and while you’re listening, pick out your participation level in one or more of her wonderful projects.