Composer Maria Schneider
has long been writing and speaking about the dangers of the omnipresent digital universe, intellectual property theft, gathering and manipulation of personal data by big tech companies, the unchecked proliferation of false and misleading material, and so on. Those concerns form the basis of her latest musical project, Data Lords
, a 2 CD set examining the conflicting realities of the digital and real worlds.
The two CDs are labeled "The Digital World" and "Our Natural World." The "Digital" disc contains music with an atmosphere of dread that is something new in Schneider's music. She has her orchestra often seething with a feeling of alarm that is not too far away from the bombastic electric jazz-rock experiments of her mentor, Gil Evans
. "A World Lost" is about those generations who occupy their time with easily accessible internet entertainments instead of using their own imaginations to create. It carries a heavy element of sorrow through Ben Monder
's weeping electric guitar and Rich Perry
's lamenting tenor sax as they both wail against a massive chorus of screaming horns. "Don't Be Evil," aimed at the amoral philosophies of Facebook, Google and other big companies, shows Schneider's sarcastic side. The music lurches forward in a ponderous tango rhythm that is both comical and subtly threatening. It sounds like a piece Kurt Weill could have written for a modern-day "Threepenny Opera."
"CQ CQ" is based on Morse Code signals and hearkens back to the more ethical and innocent behaviors of ham radio operators, pioneers of electronic communication. The music's base is a teeming web of jumbled dot and dash phrases out of which Donny McCaslin
emerges on tenor to blow long, searching soliloquies but is only answered by electrically distorted trumpet screech from Greg Gisbert
. "Sputnik" is dedicated to all the data satellites that keep the electronic networks alive. It is the one example of Schneider's affinity for melodic beauty on this half of the album with Scott Robinson
's warm, majestic baritone sax rising out of a field of expanding and awe-struck brass and piano that sounds like the theme of some bright and hopeful science fiction movie. "Data Lords" hearkens back to "Don't Be Evil's looming sense of danger, but this time without the humor. This piece has a feeling of shuddering, relentless menace purveyed by the entire orchestra with the horns rolling in Spanish-tinged waves and Michael Rodriguez
's processed trumpet echoing through the maelstrom.
In the "Our Natural World" half of the album, Schneider returns to the more familiar territory of the organically melodic and nature-inspired beauty of her most uplifting music. "Sanzenin," "Look Up" and "The Sun Waited For Me" all come off like sound paintings of slow, leisurely walks through forests and farmlands. The orchestra shimmers through in glowing layers of sound and various band members contribute gorgeous solos. These include Gary Versace
's accordion on "Sanzenin," Marshall Gilkes
' trombone on "Look Up" , Dave Pietro
's alto on "Braided Together" and Donny McCaslin's tenor on "The Sun Waited For Me." "Stone Soup" features Versace and Steve Wilson
, playing soprano sax, having an impish game of hide and seek. "Bluebird" starts with an airy pulsing motion reminiscent of another great Midwestern jazz composer, Pat Metheny
, and eventually works funk rhythms into its rich weave, giving Wilson a chance to show his versatility with some squealing R & B alto.
The orchestra's playing is immaculate. Schneider has worked with some of these musicians for decades and they really bring the sweep and force of her writing to life in the ensembles. The soloing is uniformly fantastic. In addition to everyone already mentioned, there is also Frank Kimbrough
's excellent piano consistently enhancing and filling the group sound and Johnathan Blake
showing an invaluable variety of touches on the drums, weighty and driving on the "Digital' pieces and light and free-flowing on the "Natural" ones.
The Maria Schneider Orchestra continues to be the gold standard for large ensemble jazz through the excellence of the leader's writing and the beauty of the musicians' playing. This project is an amazing set of music that is a powerful commentary on our modern existence that is the finest work yet in Schneider's career.
Maria Schneider: composer, conductor; Steve Wilson: soprano saxophone; Dave Pietro: clarinet, alto ﬂute,
piccolo; Donny McCaslin: ﬂute; Scott Robinson: Bb clarinet, bass clarinet; contrabass clarinet;
Tony Kadleck: fluegelhorn; Greg Gisbert: ﬂuegelhorn; Nadje Noordhuis: ﬂuegelhorn; Mike Rodriguez:
ﬂuegelhorn; George Flynn: bass trombone.