The warmest of accolades have already been heaped upon Maria Schneider's new record, and deservedly so. How, everyone seems to wonder, could Schneider possibly top the Grammy-winning Concert in the Garden (ArtistShare, 2004)? Forget that. How could she possibly top the first four minutes of "The Pretty Road," the track that opens Sky Blue? Somehow, Ingrid Jensen's long and suitably airy solo lifts the piece higher still. And then there are four more incredible numbers...
Beyond the oft-remarked lineage that links Schneider to Duke Ellington and Gil Evans, the central role played by birds on the majority of the pieces featured here might call to mind Olivier Messiaen, arguably the greatest composer of the 20th century, and certainly one of the weirdest. Messiaen, drunk on Catholic mysticism, pursued the intricacies of birdsong to glimpse the Divine. Schneider's approach is, by all appearances, more agnostic, but similarly focused on the natural world, something outside human history.
Meanwhile, "Rich's Piece," built around the phenomenal playing of saxophonist Rich Perry, is nevertheless as spiritual sounding as those of mid-period John Coltrane, or subsequently Pharaoh Sanders. While the birdsong at the beginning of the magisterial "Cerulean Sky" recalls the opening of Herbie Hancock's "Watermelon Man" more than a Messiaen composition, Frank Kimbrough's jagged piano playing at various turns sounds more than a little like Messiaen's birdsong experiments.
But if birdsong lifts the attention not just skyward, but heavenward, other aspects of the avian analogy return the gaze to worldly concerns. Migrationthe global mobility of birds that is a theme of "Sky Blue," the final composition hereis a metaphor for human migration, a social phenomenon at the root of so many musical innovations, including jazz itself. The echoes of Aaron Copland on the big, open chords of "Rich's Piece" and "Cerulean Sky," and the profound mastery of the jazz idiom on this recordthese are sonic markers of community, of shared experience. Many of the human experiences explicitly evoked are more personal than socialmemory, loss, dance, the rebirth of hopebut they are as human as the birdsong connections are celestial.
Sky Blue is that rare record that plumbs the sacred and the profane; life-affirming music.
Track Listing: The Pretty Road; Aires de Lando; Rich's Piece; Cerulean Skies; Sky Blue.
Personnel: Steve Wilson: alto and soprano saxophones, flute, alto flute, soprano saxophone solo (5);
Charles Pillow: alto
saxophone, clarinet, piccolo, flute, alto flute, bass flute, alto saxophone solo (4); Rich Perry:
saxophone, flute, tenor saxophone solo (3); Donny McCaslin: tenor saxophone, clarinet,
solo (4); Scott Robinson: baritone saxophone, clarinet, bass clarinet, clarinet solo (2); Tony
fluegelhorn; Jason Carder: trumpet, fluegelhorn; Laurie Frink: trumpet, fluegelhorn; Ingrid
fluegelhorn, fluegelhorn and trumpet solo with electronics (1); Keith O'Quinn: trombone;
trombone; Marshall Gilkes: trombone; George Flynn: bass trombone, contrabass trombone;
guitar; Frank Kimbrough: piano; Jay Anderson: bass; Clarence Penn: drums; Gary Versace:
accordion (1, 2, 4),
accordion solo (4); Luciana Sousa: voice (1, 4); Gonzalo Grau: cajon, palmas, percussion (2),
Jon Wikan: cajon, palmas (2), percussion (3, 4).