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Maria Schneider Orchestra: Sky Blue

Dan McClenaghan By

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Maria Schneider says she takes great pleasure in making people sound their best. In an orchestral setting, nobody does it better. She proved that on Concert in the Garden (ArtistShare, 2004); and she raises the bar with Sky Blue. Schneider, like Duke Ellington before her, writes for her players, and on this disc she has incited seven adventurous and heart-stoppingly gorgeous solos from various long-term band members, wrapping each of their eloquent statements in the grandeur, the majestic ebb and flow of her twenty-piece ensemble.

It seemed impossible for Schneider top her Grammy-winning Concert in the Garden, but she's done just that with Sky Blue. She has elevated her music to a seemingly impossible height. A sharp artistic focus has sharpened further, with four of the five compositions showcasing single soloists in front of the enveloping majesty of her unmatched orchestral choruses. In this, a parallel can be drawn not only to Ellington, but also to Gil Evans and his landmark Columbia albums with Miles Davis: Miles Ahead (1958) Porgy and Bess (1959) and Sketches of Spain (1960).

Always the story-teller, Schneider opens the set with "The 'Pretty' Road," a sonic painting from a childhood memory of a path she and her family took from an out-of-town restaurant back to her home town of Windom, Minnesota. The sound leads, with the help of Ingrid Jensen's flugelhorn, to the crest of a gentle rise and a vista of sparkling lights, sparkling stars that burst to life with Jensen and her glowing electronic effects.

"Aires de Lando" features Scott Robinson's clarinet solo over the rhythmically-layered Peruvian lando. The sound—with cajons (Peruvian percussion "box" adopted by Spanish flamenco) and palmas (hand claps)—has an incredible warmth flowing beneath Robinson's clarinet. He begins in a rather sedate mode, before things evolve in the direction of searing, untamed beauty.

Schneider composed "Rich's Piece" with saxophonist Rich Perry, a Maria Schneider orchestra stalwart, in mind. The atmosphere is pensive, Perry going inward with a robust and measured tone in front of a waxing/waning orchestral backdrop.

The title tune was written for a close friend who passed as Schneider was writing the piece. It is a sound of unalloyed poignancy, featuring Steve Wilson's impossibly, achingly gorgeous turn on soprano sax, a sad yet hopeful work of art.

"Cerulean Skies" is the masterpiece within a masterpiece, a twenty-two minute tune inspired by Schneider's love of birds. It's a composition that takes an idea similar to Ellington's "Sunset and the Mockingbird" from The Queen's Suite (Pablo, 1959) and runs with it, giving flight to three different soloists—tenor saxophonist Donny McCaslin, accordionist Gary Versace (who creates a lilting sweetness in front of Frank Kimbrough's piano—that sounds like collected raindrops falling from a high canopy and bursting on a forest floor) and alto saxophonist Charles Pillow. The tune includes bird sounds created by various band members, and a snippet of a recording of a cerulean warbler, a bird that Schneider, in her birding rambles, has encountered in New York's Central Park.

Magnificent. A magical work of art, from beginning to end.

Track Listing: The 'Pretty' Road; Aires de Lando; Rich's Piece; Cerulean Skies; Sky Blue.

Personnel: Steve Wilson: alto and soprano saxophones, flute, alto flute, soprano saxophone solo (5); Charles Pillow: alto saxophone, clarinet, piccolo, flute, alto flute, bass flute, alto saxophone solo (4); Rich Perry: tenor saxophone, flute, tenor saxophone solo (3); Donny McCaslin: tenor saxophone, clarinet, tenor saxophone solo (4); Scott Robinson: baritone saxophone, clarinet, bass clarinet, clarinet solo (2); Tony Kadleck: trumpet, fluegelhorn; Jason Carder: trumpet, fluegelhorn; Laurie Frink: trumpet, fluegelhorn; Ingrid Jensen: trumpet, fluegelhorn, fluegelhorn and trumpet solo with electronics (1); Keith O'Quinn: trombone; Ryan Keberle: trombone; Marshall Gilkes: trombone; George Flynn: bass trombone, contrabass trombone; Ben Monder: guitar; Frank Kimbrough: piano; Jay Anderson: bass; Clarence Penn: drums; Gary Versace: accordion (1, 2, 4), accordion solo (4); Luciana Sousa: voice (1, 4); Gonzalo Grau: cajon, palmas, percussion (2), percussion (4); Jon Wikan: cajon, palmas (2), percussion (3, 4).

Title: Sky Blue | Year Released: 2007 | Record Label: ArtistShare

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