There's a reason that composer/bandleader Maria Schneider calls her large ensemble an orchestra. The term "big band suggests a number of inherent expectations relating to historical tradition. Schneider's group may be configured like a big bandfive reeds, four trumpets, four trombones with an expanded rhythm sectionbut the music she writes delves into territories considerably farther afield. Sky Blue is a logical follow-up to her Grammy Award-winning Concert in the Garden (ArtistShare, 2004), but there's been significant evolution as well.
Even more ambitious than its predecessor, Sky Blue doesn't completely leave behind the South American influences heard on Concert. The Peruvian-informed "Aires de Landro manages to mask its rhythmic complexity beneath a lush lyricism that's explored fully by clarinetist Scott Robinson. Robinson may be the primary soloist, but hereas on the rest of Sky Bluethe ensemble players manage to interpret Schneider's detailed arrangements while bringing their own personalities to every chart.
That's an important differentiator for Schneider's orchestra, made all the more significant considering that only seven members of an ensemble ranging from seventeen to twenty-one pieces are afforded delineated solos. Guitarist Ben Monder's subtle presence is often something more felt than heard, but it adds unmistakably to the ambience of pieces like the Americana-rich "The 'Pretty' Road, the closest thing to a conventional song form that Schneider's written, yet possessed of an orchestral depth made all the more vivid by Ingrid Jensen's remarkable trumpet and flugelhorn solo.
"Rich's Piece is, not surprisingly, a solo vehicle for tenor saxophonist Rich Perry, but this nine-minute tone poem is bolstered by pianist Frank Kimbrough's intuitive colors and Jay Anderson's fluid and sensitive bass work. Schneider's voicings and her choice of instruments to layer them seamlessly ebb and flow alongside Perry, sometimes becoming dramatically dominant, elsewhere underpinning Perry with sublime understatement.
But it's the episodic, 22-minute centerpiece "Cerulean Skies that elevates Blue Sky to masterpiece. Awash with complex colors and shifting ambiences, it begins in rich abstraction with a variety of bird soundsalmost all created by members of the orchestrabefore settling into a sumptuous mix of counterpoint, polyrhythm and evocative melodism, setting the stage for a lengthy tenor solo from Donny McCaslin, who builds to near fever-pitch. Dissolving again into the ethereal, Gary Versace's accordion solo is as much texture as it is melody, with Kimbrough gradually shifting towards another folkloric Americana sectioninitially rubato but finally propulsive for altoist Charles Pillow's vivid closing solo.
Like Vince Mendozaquite possibly the only other artist writing for large ensembles today with as distinctive a voiceSchneider's not without precedent. But while past innovators like Gil Evans and Bob Brookmeyer figure in who Schneider is, she's long since transcended those and other influences. Sky Blue is an album of remarkable depth and beautyan expansive, imagery laden experience, from an artist who's ready to be considered in the same breath as those who've been so important to her own development.
Track Listing: The 'Pretty' Road; Aires de Lando; Rich's Piece; Cerulean Skies; Sky Blue.
Personnel: Maria Schneider: composer, arranger, bandleader; 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: tenor saxophone, flute, tenor saxophone solo (3); Donny McCaslin: tenor saxophone, clarinet, tenor saxophone solo (4); Scott Robinson: baritone saxophone, clarinet, bass clarinet, clarinet solo (2); Tony Kadleck: trumpet, flugelhorn; Jason Carder: trumpet, flugelhorn; Laurie Frink: trumpet, flugelhorn; Ingrid Jensen: trumpet, flugelhorn, flugelhorn and trumpet solo with electronics (1); Keith O'Quinn: trombone; Ryan Keberle: trombone; Marshall Gilkes: trombone; George Flynn: bass trombone, contrabass trombone; Ben Monder: 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), percussion (4); Jon Wikan: cajon, palmas (2), percussion (3, 4).