Setting aside for the moment the question of her proficiency as a composer / arranger / conductor, one must concede that Maria Schneider is either a crackerjack (self)–promoter or has one of the best agents in the business. Ten photographs are included with this two–CD set, which was recorded in concert in May 2000 with Germany’s SWR Big Band, and Schneider appears in every one of them, while the liner notes warmly chronicle her musical development from the age of five. With that sort of build–up, how can she lose? Well, there is the music . . . which, on paper at least, sounds as though it should be wonderful. And perhaps it is (decide for yourself), but much of what Schneider inscribes leaves this observer cold and unmoved, even though the musicians may be knocked out by it. As I’m not a musician, I must rely on my ears and what they convey. A large part of what flows from Schneider’s pen is either dirge–like, dissonant, dreary or heavy–handed, qualities that aren’t likely to earn our enthusiastic applause. To be fair, “Allégresse,” which closes Disc 1 — the whole of which is devoted to Schneider’s compositions and arrangements — has its moments, but the 38–minutes–plus “Scenes from Childhood Suite,” which precedes it, is, to me, overdrawn and tiresome in spite of respectable solos by soprano Peter Weniger and flugel Claus Reichstaller (Part 2, “Night Watchmen”) and pianist Martin Schrack (Part 3, “Coming About”). Oddly, Weniger and cornetist Karl Farrent fare less well on “Allégresse,” the first half of which is as close to engaging as Schneider advances. Disc 2 opens and closes with more of her music — the frenetic “Dance You Monster to My Soft Song” and balladic “Some Circles,” respectively. Sandwiched between them are five songs by Kurt Weill, three (“Trouble Man,” “Alabama Song,” “It Never Was You”) arranged by Schneider, the others by Ralf Schmid whose colorful version of “Mack the Knife” easily overshadows every one of Schneider’s pedantic charts. He is, however, markedly less successful in reshaping one of Weill’s loveliest melodies, “Speak Low” (some tunes are better left untouched). It’s interesting that Schneider says in the liners that “[i]f nobody had told me that this is ‘Mack the Knife’ I wouldn’t have known,” as we identified it as such after three or four notes had been played. The SWRBB, it should be noted, is first–class, and there are a handful of decorous solos on Disc 2, most prominently by Schrack and Reichstaller (“Mack the Knife,” “It Never Was You”), Weniger (soprano on “Mack the Knife,” tenor on “Some Circles”) and trombonist Marc Godfroid (“Mack the Knife,” “Trouble Man”). But they’re hardly enough to redeem the enterprise; in the end, it collapses under the ponderous weight of Schneider’s turgid and often wearisome compositions and arrangements.
Personnel: Maria Schneider, composer, arranger, conductor; Thomas Vogel, Claus Reichstaller, Karl Farrent, Rudi Reindl, trumpet, flugelhorn; Klaus Graf, Marko Lackner, Peter Weniger, Andreas Maile, Reiner Heute, reeds; Ernst Hutter, Marc Godfroid, Ian Cumming, Georg Maus, trombone; Martin Schrack, piano; Klaus