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Maria Schneider Orchestra at Hill Auditorium

Maria Schneider Orchestra at Hill Auditorium

Courtesy C. Andrew Hovan

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Maria Schneider Orchestra
Hill Auditorium
55th Performance of the 144th UMS Annual Season
Ann Arbor, Michigan
March 11, 2023

An independent thinker with a distinctive voice as a composer, Maria Schneider has been at the forefront of creative big band music for decades even as her recognition among casual jazz listeners might be underdeveloped. The 62-year-old Minnesota native seems to be heir apparent to the type of large ensemble writing that involves tailoring compositions to the talents of the specific band members at hand.

Schneider's Data Lords (ArtistShare, 2020), bagged two Grammy Awards and was named Album of the Year by members of the Jazz Journalists Association in 2020. The album's moniker speaks to Schneider's advocacy against "big brother" interfering in our lives and culture in destructive ways. Beginning with a residency in Columbus at the end of February, Schneider's Orchestra recently completed a run of thirteen shows that included a stop at the University of Michigan's Hill Auditorium.

A full house welcomed the 18-piece ensemble to the stage, with a beaming Schneider eager to perform pieces fromData Lords, as well as some new compositions. Tenor saxophonist Rich Perry stepped up to the microphone to be featured on an opening romp through "That Old Black Magic," delivered with all the individuality that is typical of a Schneider arrangement. Perry's rich, amber tones served as a reminder as to how undervalued his skills are as a soloist.

Particularly charming when introducing her pieces, Schneider's compositions seemed to focus on several things: her memories of growing up in the country, her love of nature and her concern for the current state of civilization. Waxing poetic about the starry nights of her youth, "Look Up" served as a romantic feature for trombonist Marshall Gilkes. By contrast, "Data Lords" was full of the kind of chaotic energy that Schneider relates to the dark side of technology in today's world. Trumpeter Nadje Noordhuis' processed trumpet would ring true and scatter phrases through the opening strains, giving way to some burning alto lines from Dave Pietro.

The obviously programmatic "Sputnik" put the spotlight on the baritone saxophone of Scott Robinson, his burnished tones floating above the lush and ethereal chords emanating from the orchestra. The jovial "Stone Song" featured Steve Wilson on soprano saxophone, as well as the appearance of a large stone instrument played by drummer Johnathan Blake, brought home from Japan by Schneider during a recent trip.

As a tribute to her father who was an avid ham radio operator, "CQ CQ, Is Anybody There?" proved to be a very sagacious number, with its melody based on the patterns of Morse Code. Both saxophonist Donny McCaslin and trumpeter Greg Gisbert impressed with their statements over Blake's insistent backbeat. Plunger mute in hand, Ryan Keberle would then be heard on a recent commission, followed by Ben Monder's virtuosic avowal on "The Thompson Fields."

Having been announced as a 90-minute performance prior to the start of the evening, Schneider and her crew dazzled the crowd with "American Crow," a new piece speaking to her interests as an fervent birdwatcher and featuring some stellar solo work by trumpeter Michael Rodriguez. In turn, the crowd demanded an encore that pushed the concert close to the two-hour mark. Not that anyone was complaining, having experienced a singular collection of works performed by some of the country's top jazz musicians.

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