Maria Schneider at Birdland

Nick Catalano By

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The jazz tradition of third stream music initiated by Gil Evans (with Miles Davis) nearly 50 years ago has been dutifully preserved by Maria Schneider since she founded her orchestra in 1992. The tradition seeks to combine the modern harmonies created by 20th century classical composers with the rhythmical, improvisational structures of jazz. The style was also labeled "avante-garde" jazz when writers began describing it shortly after the notable album Sketches of Spain was released in 1960. Although the music was initially heralded with high artistic praise, revisionist thinking has somewhat diminished its luster. The Penguin Guide to jazz has recently described it as "elevated light music."

When Maria Schneider started her band she had a vision similar to that of Duke Ellington for whom the orchestra was primarily a vehicle for his development as a composer as opposed to other bands who played music by many writers. After attending several music schools and studying with Evans and Bob Brookmeyer, Ms. Schneider settled in New York in 1985, founded her band, and began writing for it. Her first three recordings brought critical acclaim while her most recent recordings won two Grammy Awards, the first for Concert in the Garden and the second for Cerulean Skies. From its humble beginning at Visiones (a now defunct club in Greenwich Village) the band has performed in festivals and concert halls worldwide While Ms. Schneider has received numerous commissions for her work.

Recently, the composer has established ties with ArtistShare—an organization which commissions compositions and allows patrons (who can be ordinary jazz fans who pay from $125 to $2500) to participate in the creation of the work by attending rehearsals, conversing with the composer and even receiving credit on the published score. This latter benefit represents a curious and unique milestone in artistic creations.

At Birdland last week the Maria Schneider Orchestra settled into familiar musical territory from the initial downbeat. The band skillfully played their leader's compositions with quiet, even dispositions which reflected the music's structural essence. The compositions feature long and occasionally wearying whole-note lines containing the lugubrious harmonies reminiscent of the third stream innovators of long ago. The lines are played underneath various improvisational solos. Some of the soloists in the band have clusters of instruments at their feet adding new meaning to the term "doubling" as the leader noted. Scott Robinson, the baritone saxophonist, handily performed a solo on a mellophone and later added important color with his bass clarinet. Soprono/altoist Steve Wilson soloed on "Sky Blue" with a warmth seldom encountered in soprano saxophones.

From the CD Coming About the band played a flamenco-inspired piece, this time supporting a stellar trumpet solo and adroit guitar playing. Ms. Schneider has had to expand the instrumentation (an accordionist is prominently seated in the reed section) as her tastes take her to distant musical lands. On the Sky Blue CD I counted 21 band members included in the credits.

One of the evening's highlights was a Choro (an old Brazilian folk form) which Ms. Schneider correctly described as having the same relationship to contemporary Brazilian music as ragtime has to modern jazz.

I find myself wondering what is to follow from Ms. Schneider's talented pen now that she has filled in so many blanks in the third stream narrative. Her next recordings will surely contain important clues.

Photo Credit

Hans Speekenbrink
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