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The Maria Schneider Jazz Orchestra at the University of Maryland

The jazz program at the University of Maryland continued as it began this season with quality, as the Maria Schneider Jazz Orchestra followed the McCoy Tyner Septet into the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center. The difficulty in describing any performance by this award-winning ensemble comes from finding superlatives that haven't already been used. Perhaps the best compliment to pay Ms. Schneider's work and her ensemble is that it shows how far jazz has come and what its potential is becoming.

As the first cadences of "Evanescence" rolled around the packed theater it stimulated a range of responses. First was the contrast with what we had heard the week before if Tyner & Co. was meat and potatoes this was tapas and moqueca and crême brulée, but also Potato Lefse and Lutefisk, because if jazz comes from New Orleans, Chicago and New York, it also comes from Minnesota--where Ms. Schneider grew up--by way of Europe and Brazil. 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 traveled in Buck Clayton's trumpet case. And it presents a very different vision of this music than that presented by, for example, Wynton Marsalis and Jazz at Lincoln Center. That is another debate. Perhaps when it drifts too far from Africa it is no longer jazz. I don't know; as a European I may have a biased view. But as Schneider's mentor, Gil Evans--a Canadian--was fond of saying when told people were puzzled by his album, Sketches of Spain, not knowing whether to call it classical music or jazz, "That's a merchandiser's problem, not mine. I write popular music."

Perhaps Schneider's music is popular, but not popular enough to support itself through record sales even though Ms. Schnieder and other artists at Artistshare (see artistshare.com) have developed a new business model for their products. In fact, much of Schneider's compositions result from commissions, including several she presented this evening, along with three pieces from her Grammy Award-winning album Concert in the Garden. These are ambitious compositions; each piece is a mini tone poem, often with a programmatic content, such as "Journey Home" or "The Pretty Road" evoking scenes from Schneider's childhood. She also looks further afield for her content, to Peruvian and Brazilian dance forms, for example, with more to follow as she travels the world. To these colors she adds instrumental ones I counted 16 or 17 instruments in use by the reed players, all the flutes and saxophones and clarinets, including Scott Robinson's contra-bass, plus Charles Pillow's oboe and English horn. Gary Varsace's accordion and the additional percussion added to the mix on the South American selections. (There was also a mechanical Meadow Lark on one song!) As one would expect from a disciple of Gil Evans, Schneider draws skillfully upon this palette, mixing her colors adroitly.

Again following Evans' example, Schneider builds each piece around one or two soloists. These are not necessarily star names, but fine all-round players who can execute these far-from-simple charts and also contribute expressive solo work. Robinson, whom Schneider referred to as a "freak of nature" for the way he covers the extreme high and low registers, was expressive on a metal clarinet on the Peruvian number. Pillow on alto sax and Ben Monder on guitar were featured on "Journey Home," Rich Perry on tenor and Rock Ciccarone's trombone on "Evanescence," while Varsace's accordion was front and center on the lovely "Choro Dançado," with its elegant Brazilian flavored lines. The orchestra's two flugelhorn soloists, Ingred Jensen on "The Pretty Road" and Jason Carder on "Bulería, Soleá y Rumba," both showed that Kenny Wheeler has influenced that instrument as much as Miles Davis and Art Farmer, and the latter piece, which ended the concert, also included a passionate tenor solo from Donny McCaslin.

If there is one word to sum up both Schneider's music and her orchestra it is ambitious. These is not easy music and, at times, I thought a little judicious editing would have brought greater clarity to compositions that lasted, on average, around 15 minutes. But this is a small criticism. Like every artist Schneider is ultimately striving for the simplicity it can take a lifetime to achieve. She states as much in the highly recommended interview with John Dworkin on the jazzreview.com site (http://www.jazzreview.com/article/review-4631.html) which was, incidentally, reprinted in the program for this concert. She comments 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." She has perhaps put her finger on music's greatest challenge. Judging by this performance her stated goal may still be slightly out of reach but by no means out of sight.

Personnel: Personnel: Maria Schneider, composer, arranger, conductor; Tony Kadleck, Jason Carder, Laurie Frink, Ingrid Jensen - trumpets; Ryan Keberle, Rock Ciccarone, Jason Jackson, Jeff Nelson - trombones; Dave Pietro, Charles Pillow, Rich Perry, Donny McCaslin, Scott Robinson - reeds; Ben Monder - guitar; Frank Kimbrough - piano; John Hebert - bass; Clarence Penn - drums; Gary Varsace - accordion; Jon Wilkin, Gonzalo Grau - percussion.

For more information go to: www.mariaschneider.com

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Maria Schneider
  • Concert Date: 11/12/2006
  • Subtitle: Schneider and Cohorts Share New Stage of Their Musical Journey
  • Venue: Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center, University of Maryland
  • City State Country: College Park, Maryland
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