Well someone doesn't seem too happy with the digital world. But that's nothing new for Maria Schneider. The Grammy-award winning composer and bandleader has been an outspoken critic of copyright abuses in the digital and streaming world of music for the biggest part of the last decade. On her newest effort, she sets her justified quarrels with the industry to music by juxtaposing the cold world of ones and zeroes, comprised on the first CD titled "The Digital World," in opposition with nature, the second CD "Our Natural World." Which of the two she prefers is unmistakable and can be deduced from the choice of pronoun in the respective CD subtitle of Data Lords. But the mood captured on the two discs alone tells the same tale.
The music on the record can be interpreted and analyzed according to the subordinate subject. Dark chord progressions and ominous soundscapes define "The Digital World," while "Our Natural World" radiates a sense of ease through light-footed interplay and a racket of bars in the major key. On CD 1 Ben Monder's droning electric guitar soars through unfriendly crescendos and hectic horn arrangements that constantly blow on the brink of dissonance, whereas the CD2 is graced by an acoustic band sound that builds on fluttering accordion breezes, skillfully contributed by Gary Versace), and joyful saxophone solos, mesmerizingly delivered by Steve Wilson) within spacious small ensemble sections. One of the two worlds breathes, the other not so much.
Beyond being meticulously arranged down to the very last detail, Schneider's compositions are treated to one of the most sonically transparent jazz orchestra productions in recent memory. Every frequency of every instrument comes through with the exact thrust as intended. Essential melodic fragments are dynamically enveloped by a wide and deepened room made up of complex amalgamations of sound and color. "Look Up" is a standout example of the dynamic scope the orchestra is able to create. One hears Marshall Gilkes on trombone soloing over a stream of changes provided by constantly alternating band sizes. From lush quartet formations made up of piano, bass and drums over fully staffed horn sections to subtle exchanges between staccato guitar and accordion, the trombone's inventive lines adapt and shift in amenable yet spirited ways, letting each nuance of the instrument shine.
Many other examples of soloistic bliss within ornate instrumentations are spread across the two worlds, not for soloistic merit alone, but to loosen up the structures and bring a verbal layer into the music. By enabling musical conversations, the respective compositions' underlying themesSchneider's inspirations for each pieceare brought forward in expressive ways. There's a reason for the rhythmical monotonousness and heaviness on much of the bleaker first CD. The dragging pace of "A World Lost" can be attributed to it being based around the idea of longing for times more connected to earth and each other, whereas "CQ CQ Is Anybody There?"'s constant explosive shifts and textural nature can be traced back to its rhythms spelling out various messages in Morse code. "Sanzenin" opens the second CD by immediately setting a much brighter mood. The piece draws inspiration from temple gardens north of Kyoto while closer "The Sun Waited for Me," showcasing warm and fuzzy tenor lines by Donny McCaslin, is based on a Ted Kooser poem (the second piece to be based on a Kooser poem after "Braided Together"), reminding of the expansiveness of the world around us with a pool of positively swaying harmonies.
Darkness and confusion can be challenging atmospheres to accept and let in. The lighter second CD is arguably the easier listen. But there's no question the musicality of both is on an equally and remarkably high level. Few ensemble leaders and composers share this level of artistic ambition in jazz, and none sound anything like Maria Schneider. Her ability to wrap a wide variety of musical concepts and ideas into a cohesive whole, at no cost of any intimacy and without the dramatic pompousness, is unparalleled, as is her unique strength. This strength is as concentrated as ever here, making Data Lords arguably the most impressive entry to her oeuvre yet.
CD 1: A World Lost; Don’t Be Evil; CQ CQ, Is Anybody There?; Sputnik; Data Lords. CD 2: Sanzenin; Stone Song; Look Up; Braided Together; Bluebird; The Sun Waited for Me.