Beauty Against the Data Lords: The Maria Schneider Orchestra

Beauty like that is strength. One could turn the world upside down with beauty like that.

Doestoevsky, The Idiot

Over the past three decades, Minnesota-born composer Maria Schneider has staked out her own unique territory, based in jazz but expanding beyond category. From classical training and an apprenticeship with master arranger Gil Evans, Schneider parleyed her vivid sense of musical color, vibrant compositions and power-packed conducting skills into the leadership of a 20-piece Jazz Orchestra. At the height of the 1990s jazz boom, Schneider’s ensemble maintained a weekly residence at the New York club Visiones and recorded three fine, critically acclaimed albums (Evanescence, Coming About and Allegresse) for the German label Enja.

Reacting nimbly to the Internet’s disruption of music’s value, Schneider pivoted to crowdfunding for her 21st-century recordings. Concert in the Garden, Sky Blue and The Thompson Fields (along with Winter Morning Walks, a classical song cycle composed for soprano Dawn Upshaw) inhabit a rareified sweet spot where composition and improvisation feed each other, fusing the potent swing of classic big bands and the lush warmth of orchestral tone poems to evoke a deep-rooted, constantly unfolding delight in the world of nature.

But in 2014, David Bowie recruited Schneider and her orchestra for the jolting noir single “Sue (Or In A Season Of Crime).” The collaboration didn’t just boost Schneider’s profile (and result in sax player Donny McCaslin and guitarist Ben Monder backing Bowie on his swan song Blackstar); it unlocked a grainier, more shaded musical vocabulary, evident in her most recent commissions. This expansion also mirrored Schneider’s dedicated activism on behalf of copyright owners, pushing back against Big Data’s predation on both creative content and personal information.

The new Maria Schneider Orchestra double album Data Lords is the magnificent result, their most complete statement to date. Conveying both the bleak potential of online life blindly lived and the bounteous beauty of the life around us we take for granted, Schneider conjures up slow-burning musical structures that, as they catch fire, blaze with fear and dread — but also with hope and joy. Throughout there’s a symphonic sweep, a supple rhythmic foundation and a seamless flow of inexhaustible melody.

Make no mistake about it: “The Digital World,” the first half of Data Lords, is a full-on polemic, as Schneider jams the dehumanizing power of the Internet in our faces. Mesmerizing opener “A World Lost” laments brains stuffed with empty calories of information, Monder’s guitar and Rich Perry’s sax cutting against the grain of a brooding orchestral build. The caricature tango “Don’t Be Evil” mocks Google’s faux-idealism, viciously sketched by Monder, trombonist Ryan Keberle and pianist Frank Kimbrough, and laced with distorted fragments of “Taps.” Morse code fragments coalesce into lowering sound clouds around McCaslin’s sax in “CQ CQ Is Anybody There,” then decay into the frenzied AI simulacrum of Greg Gisbert’s treated trumpet. The tense, disquieting “Sputnik” portrays data-gathering satellites launched above the turning world, only achieving release through Scott Robinson’s wide-ranging baritone solo. And the title track exudes unstoppable menace, only to collapse in a juddering heap, checked by trumpeter Mike Rodriguez and altoist Dave Pietro’s last-ditch testimony that there are more things in heaven and earth …

Which is where part two, “Our Natural World,” comes to the rescue. A lark darts through, then ascends above the Japanese temple and garden of “Sanzenin,” courtesy of Gary Versace’s accordion. “Stone Song” plays a whimsical game of stops and starts that depicts the marvel of human creativity — in this case, Jack Troy’s wood-fired pottery, sculpted in sound by Steve Wilson’s incandescent soprano work. “Look Up” just sparkles; it’s stargazing that swings, thanks especially to Kimbrough and trombonist Marshall Gilkes. “Bluebird” is a giddy throwdown, ramping up to sheer ecstasy stoked by Wilson and Versace. And inspired by the poetry of Ted Kooser (whose texts fueled Winter Morning Walks), “Braided Together” and “The Sun Waited for Me” proclaim the unspeakably profound gift of life itself. Pietro’s interplay with drummer Jonathan Blake on the former and McCaslin’s obbligato duet with Gilkes’ melody on the latter are heart-stopping highlights; even as we’re released from the spell Schneider’s music casts, we’re refreshed for whatever struggles lie ahead.

There’s no question in my mind that Maria Schneider and her orchestra have reached a new artistic pinnacle with Data Lords. Schneider brilliantly portrays both the creeping digital dystopia she fears and the rich natural gifts she calls us to recover, her mind, heart and skill fully engaged; her compatriots inhabit and animate her music with a dedicated unity and a thrilling improvisational daring; and the high-definition sound lovingly unfolds all of the music’s sophisticated, utterly moving beauty with breathtaking clarity. You can hear excerpts from Data Lords at Schneider’s website; you can purchase it exclusively at Artist Share (where Schneider’s complete catalog is also available). This is another instance where Schneider takes a stand, this time against the cheapening of art via streaming (the Spotify sampler embedded above is her only concession to the current model). But believe me — in this case the price is absolutely worth paying.

— Rick Krueger