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Concert In The Garden by Maria Schneider Orchestra

After posting a review of Maria Schneider's brilliant concert at the University of Maryland last November, it came as something of a surprise to me to find no reviews of her CDs here at jazzreview.com, since 2000's Alegresse--even though there is an extensive and excellent interview by John Dworkin. So, in spite of the fact that her most recent recording is two years old, I feel compelled to submit a review. It was, after all, voted Jazz Album of the Year in the Jazz Journalists Awards and in the DOWNBEAT Critics Poll, and won a Grammy for Jazz Recording. One writer has even suggested she deserves a Purlitzer prize. With her new album ready to be released, and her picture on the cover of this month's Down Beat, it is time to get caught up with Maria Schneider.

It took me some time to write about this music, however, although I take this as a good sign. It is one measure of a work's worth when it takes repeated listening to really come to grips with it. Not that this is difficult music; that can reveal itself as quickly as the glib and superficial. It just rewards repeated listening. So onto my I-pod it went and I played it over for two or three weeks. What I heard was Schneider's brilliant ensemble writing morphing through contrasting moods and colors, complemented by fine instrumental solos. In short: the best that orchestral jazz has to offer, including moments of shear beauty--yes beauty. I was left with the conviction that Maria's work represents a way forward for this music. Note: I did not say the way forward; there are too many who profess to know what the way forward must be. No, a way forward--one of several, but a highly important one.

Jazz is frequently referred to as America's Classical Music. For music to be classical it has to develop a language that is sufficiently rich and flexible to allow for endless variation without the loss of freshness, a rich vein that can be mined for many decades. For me, the combination of western harmonic color and the rhythmic intensity derived from Africa and its diaspora in Latin America and elsewhere creates just such a language. It is this that allows the genre loosely defined as jazz to provide a way forward for music in the 21st century that avoids the extremes of excessive abstraction that academic Western music has largely fallen into, and the twin evils of glibness and crudeness that bedevil the popular music genres.

Like her mentor Gil Evans, Maria exploits this language with great skill and a wonderful imagination. According to Gene Leese, Evans himself was frequently told that people were puzzled by the album Sketches of Spain that he wrote for Miles Davis, not knowing whether to call it classical music or jazz. "That's a merchandiser's problem," Evans responded, "not mine. I write popular music." "Even I become hard pressed to define my music" is Maria's own comment. Whatever it is, jazz is the major ingredient, informed as much by Evan's coloristic approach as by the more meat and potatoes language of another mentor--Bob Brookmeyer. As I wrote in my concert review, "if [this] was meat and potatoes this was [also] tapas and moqueca and crême brulée, but also Potato Lefse and Lutefisk, because if jazz comes from New Orleans, Chicago and New York--by way of Europe and Brazil--it also comes from Minnesota, where Ms. Schneider grew up. This is not a "big band"--it is a jazz orchestra, one that has come a long way from Kansas City when the parts for the Basie band traveling in Buck Clayton's trumpet case." Overall, however, both jazz and classical music strive ultimately to achieve an emotional simplicity. "The greater the emotional intensity, the greater the simplicity," wrote composer Alan Hovhaness. "This is not 'intellectual' music, but music of pure feeling." Schneider appears to share this goal, having commented that she is tired of music that attempts to impress through mere complexity: "You know? I'm not looking to impress anybody," she confides, "I'm looking to move people .. . I want my music to bring people out of their heads and into their hearts."

The soundscape we are presented with as Concert In The Garden opens reflects this but also brings more of Maria's words into focus: "I think my music has started to more deeply reflect the world of music that I've enjoyed listening to in recent years. The rhythmic, harmonic and melodic flavors in my work are undoubtedly influenced by my love of Spanish, flamenco, and Brazilian music. Jazz is still at my core, but the intricacy and development one would find in classical music is more present." Farnborough's gentle arpeggios along with Versace's accordion line and some percussion accents form an initial layer of ambiguous genre as the selection opens, until more instrumental colors plus Souza's wordless voice are layered on top to form the first climax, leading into a solo guitar episode, then an intriguing duet between piano and accordion which builds in intensity to a second peak and then a gentle diminuendo. "Chord Dançado," first of the "Three Romances" opens with its gorgeous melodic line, again voiced with Souza's voice. The tenor solo that follows is sterling but almost superfluous with such rich orchestral variety behind it, from soft woodwinds to full ensemble, until another ecstatic climax brings the section's conclusion. This is in contrast with the lovely, slowly unfolding, interplay between Ingrid Jensen's flügelhorn and Charles Pillow's soprano which opens "Pas de Deux," with shifting orchestral colors easing in and out behind them. A Larry Farrell trombone solo briefly evokes "Where Flamingos Fly" before the flügelhorn and soprano return--the effect is magical, the music totally absorbing. A solo piano interlude introduces the third Romance "Dança Ilusória," which alternates a trombone solo and more piano work with ensemble writing before building another dynamic arc which gradually fades under Farnborough's final upper-register piano clusters. "Buleria, Solea y Rumba" is itself a tour de force with some of the most Evanish writing and more sterling tenor work from Donny McCaslin.

I love jazz for its color and movement and swing. Rarely, however, does it seem to rise to the level of the sublime. There are moments here, however, that almost touch that exalted level of poetic expression. This is what makes the efforts of Maria Schneider and her cohorts so intriguing and so full of promise. Added to that, her unique approach to marketing her work, which is available exclusively through her remarkable website, itself linked with ArtistShare and a subscription service concept, could provide a model for many other artists. My advice is to go to the site, explore it fully, purchase "Concert In The Garden," and sign up for "Sky Blue." This is music of total quality that augurs well for the future of music--not just jazz, of music.

(Note: For my concert review see: www.jazzreview.com/article/review-5131.html. For Richard Bourcier's review of Alegresse see: www.jazzreview.com/cdreview.cfm?ID=2483 John Dworkin's interview with Maria Schneider is at /www.jazzreview.com/article/ review-4631.html)

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Maria Schneider Orchestra
  • CD Title: Concert In The Garden
  • Genre: Contemporary Jazz / Modern
  • Year Released: 2005
  • Record Label: mariaschneider.com
  • Tracks: 1. Concert In The Garden 2. Three Romances: Chord Dançado 3. Three Romances: Pas de Deux 4. Three Romances: Dança Ilusória 5. Buleria, Solea y Rumba
  • Musicians: TIM RIES alto/soprano/clarinet/flute/alto flute/bass flute; CHARLES PILLOW alto/soprano/ clarinet/flute/alto flute/oboe/English horn; RICH PERRY tenor/flute; DONNY McCASLIN tenor/soprano/clarinet/flute; SCOTT ROBINSON baritone/flute/clarinet/bass clarinet/contrabass clarinet; TONY KADLECK trumpet/flügelhorn; GREG GISBERT trumpet/flügelhorn LAURIE FRINK trumpet/flügelhorn; INGRID JENSEN trumpet/flügelhorn; KEITH OQUINN trombone; ROCK CICCARONE trombone; LARRY FARRELL trombone; GEORGE FLYNN bass trombone/contrabass trombone; BEN MONDER guitar; FRANK KIMBROUGH piano JAY ANDERSON bass; CLARENCE PENN drums; JEFF BALLARD cajon and quinto cajon (right) [5]; GONZALO GRAU cajon (left) [5]; GARY VERSACE accordion [1]; LUCIANA SOUZA voice [1 & 5]
  • Rating: Five Stars
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