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Maria Schneider Orchestra at Jazz Standard

Dan Bilawsky By

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Maria Schneider Orchestra
Jazz Standard
New York, NY
November 25, 2014

Thanksgiving is a time to reflect, rejoice, regroup, and remember all that we have to be thankful for. In the jazz world, the Maria Schneider Orchestra always ranks at the top of that last category.

For the past decade, the most important large ensemble in jazz has held court at New York's Jazz Standard during Thanksgiving week, delivering the powerful gospel of its leader as she directs her music with lithe movements and firm command. In 2013, a mournful tone hovered over the proceedings, as the then-recent passing of trumpet guru and longtime band member Laurie Frink was fresh in minds and hearts. The 2014 run, on the other hand, was celebratory in nature. The orchestra was raring to go, riding high after the release of a collaboration with rock icon David Bowie—"Sue (Or In A Season Of A Crime)"—and eager to deliver music from The Thompson Fields (Artistshare, 2015), a forthcoming album that serves as the long-awaited follow-up to the groundbreaking Sky Blue (Artistshare , 2007).

The second set of the orchestra's opening night started with "Last Season"—the closing track on Evanescence (Enja/ArtistShare, 1994/2005). Frank Kimbrough's blowing-in-the-breeze pianisms served as a prelude to the song, a flowing marriage of saxophones, clarinets, flugelhorns, and trombones set the stage, and two soloists captured the imagination. Trumpeter Greg Gisbert took a measured approach during his solo spot, but trombonist Ryan Keberle, egged on by the rising tide of energy from drummer Clarence Penn, was clearly firing on all cylinders. Next came "Nimbus," a dark musical cloud painting that gave saxophonist Steve Wilson a chance to serve as the bringer of storms. The piece opened on what can only be described as consonant dissonance, building ever-so-carefully with subtly powerful, Ennio Morricone-meets-Gil Evans intentions. Once Wilson was in the driver's seat, he took the song to its peak, went down the rabbit hole with the rhythm section on his heels, and came up for air with some gentle, reedy textures behind him.

"The Thompson Fields," the latest in a line of gorgeous pieces inspired by Schneider's memories of growing up in southwestern Minnesota, gave pause to admire the composer's ability to capture the majesty in rural American life. Lage Lund's guitar took the room deep into a dream state, the rise-and-fall dynamics from the low end of the band gave weight to the music, and the unrivaled blend and balance of the ensemble created a picture that's worth a thousand words, yet needed none to be understood and appreciated. "Home," a new feature for tenor saxophonist Rich Perry, focused on his horn work and Schneider's flaxen chords, but such sounds were fleeting; "Gumba Blue"—another look back to Evanescence—burned away any gentleness that remained in the air. The band took a punchier stance here, as the brass fired away. Penn and bassist Jay Anderson delivered some up-tempo backing behind trumpeter Mike Rodriguez's solo, Dave Pietro worked in a more exploratory vein, and trombonist Marshall Gilkes delivered a scorcher of a solo, both technically impressive and visceral in nature.

The penultimate piece in the set—"Arbiters Of Evolution," inspired by Cornell University's Birds Of Paradise Project—focused on the dancing saxophone habits of Donny McCaslin and Scott Robinson. Each man had an opportunity to stand alone, strutting in ritualistic fashion, but the kicker was when they crossed streams atop the ensemble. The set then came to a close with a number that the orchestra had yet to ever perform on a Jazz Standard Thanksgiving set. Schneider introduced "Lembra De Mim" by telling the story of recording the song with Ivan Lins and then flying to Belgium to get harmonica icon Toots Thielemans on the piece. Here, it was accordionist Gary Versace who was given the spotlight, painting beautiful lines over the bossa-ish backgrounds below.

Effusive praise continues to follow Maria Schneider and her orchestra wherever they may go, and this set proved, once again, that it's praise that's well-deserved. There is no other artist operating today who can continually expand and reshape the realm of musical possibility like Maria Schneider.

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