The skillfully designed cover art tells part of the story; a leafhalf as nature intendedthe remainder, a circuit board doppelganger. The pastoral soundscapes associated with the music of Grammy-winning composer/bandleader Maria Schneider belie her activist alter-ego. An outspoken critic of copyright protections, prejudicial revenue schemes and the abuses of "big data," Schneider has authored op-eds and testified before the US Congress. She ventures onto unfamiliar terrain, coalescing her passions on a masterwork double album, Data Lords.
The two discs are respectively designated as "The Digital World" and "Our Natural World" and the first CD opens with the ominous "A World Lost." Ben Monder's brooding guitar and Richard Perry's tenor sax preside over rumbling brass; the piece is as dark as the title suggests. Monder's electric guitar becomes an emblematic figure in a substantial portion of the digitally-focused disc. "CQ CQ, Is Anybody There?" is based on the low-tech forerunner of the digital world; Schneider's engineer father was a ham radio operator. The piece features Donny McCaslin on tenor saxophone and Greg Gisbert on trumpet, with electronics, a rarity in Schneider's recordings. The two set up a clash between organic and enhanced sounds. A harbinger of the competition for technological dominance is manifested in the shadowy "Sputnik" where Scott Robinson's baritone sax takes center stage. The title track closes the first disc with an appropriately chaotic and conflicted warning of the potential risks of an AI dominated world.
Returning to more familiar ground, "Our Natural World" is not a divestiture from the concept but solace from the intrusion of mechanization. The striking "Sanzenin" is a meditative reflection on the Buddhist gardens in Ohara, Japan. Gary Versace's accordion evocatively soars above the low reeds. Schneider further lifts the spirits with the lavishly textured "Look Up" with Marshall Gilkes' inspired trombone interwoven with pianist Frank Kimbrough. Schneider builds on her visual observations of nature in the eleven-minute "Bluebird" and the second-disc closing piece "The Sun Waited for Me." Both of those, hopeful and energized arrangements are in the vein of her work on The Thompson Fields (ArtistShare, 2015).
Schneider found her inspiration to take a larger risk in working briefly with David Bowie on his final studio album Blackstar (ISO Records, 2016). The post-production version of the single "Sue (Or in a Season of Crime)" caught Schneider off guard but also opened her mind to new ideas. Data Lords was commissioned by the Library of Congress and premiered at the Library in 2016. Schneider has described the project as "very dark, chaotic, and intense." By comparison to her other releases, it's true but that account shouldn't be off-putting to her fans. Data Lords is often gorgeous and always intriguing. It is Schneider's best collection to date and sure to end up on most of the appropriate year-end lists. This is intoxicating music and highly recommended.
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.