Whit Sidener’s University of Miami Concert Jazz Band, long recognized as one of the country’s best, has built its latest album (and fourth in my library) around composer Maria Schneider’s “Three Romances,” with other selections gleaned from the band’s archival material spanning the decade of the ‘90s (and one from 1985). Schneider, who wrote the Romances especially for the UM ensemble, was there to supervise dress rehearsals and conduct the inaugural performance.
As one who has often been lukewarm about Schneider’s music, I must say that two of the three Romances are delightful, easily accomplishing their basic purpose, which, she says, is to “invoke a feeling of movement and dance in the listener.” The other, “Pas de Deux,” sandwiched between “Choro Dancado” and “Danca Ilusoria,” is more problematic. The opening “Dancado,” influenced by the Brazilian music called choro, sways and pirouettes sensuously behind flowing solos by tenor saxophonist Mark Rose and pianist James Gasior prior to a typically robust Latin denouement, while “Ilusoria,” a foxtrot that suggests a waltz, is courtly and debonair, its lovely voicings for brasses and reeds underpinning lissome solos by Gasior and trombonist Douglas Leibinger.
“Pas de Deux,” which Schneider says was inspired by her favorite ballerina, France’s Sylvie Guillem, lacks the aura of energy and passion that one might expect from a world-renowned dancer, and in fact is more dirge-like than danceable, hampering everyone including soloists Gasior, trumpeter Peter Clagett and soprano saxophonist Kevin Russell. It must have seemed more congenial on paper.
Another of Schneider’s compositions, “Lately” (that’s the piece from 1985), launches the album, and it is a happy surprise, proving that Schneider can indeed swing when she chooses to. The brassy flag-waver, which wouldn’t be out of place in the Count Basie book, embodies vibrant solos by bassist Dennis Marks, guitarist John Kreisberg and trombonist Dante Luciani.
Rounding out the program are Horace Silver’s cheerful samba (bossa?) “Gregory Is Here,” Bronislau Kaper’s memorable standard “Invitation,” and two elaborate but accessible charts by UM pianist Clay Perry, “Divisi” and “Squiggle” (not to be confused with Schneider’s “Wyrgly”). The invariably adroit soloists are trombonist Jeremy Greg and baritone Antonio Orta (“Gregory”), trumpeter Rob Smith and tenor Todd Del Guidice (“Invitation”), tenor Miguel Vilas (“Divisi”), Perry, alto Joe Cohen and guitarist Chris Young (“Squiggle”).
Even though I found Schneider‘s “Pas de Deux” less than entrancing, that shouldn’t deter anyone from acquiring Romances, which, taken as a whole, is a marvelous album, emphatically underscoring UM’s well-earned stature as one of the country’s leading Jazz Studies programs.