In Concert: The Maria Schneider Orchestra Looks Up – and Soars

The Maria Schneider Orchestra presented by The Gilmore Festival, Chenery Auditorium, Kalamazoo, Michigan, March 12, 2023.

On the final date of a tour celebrating both a Pulitzer-Prize nominated album (2020’s masterful Data Lords) and 30 years together, composer Maria Schneider and her 18-piece jazz orchestra got down to business with aplomb and obvious delight. Launching “Look Up” (featuring supple, soaring trombone from Marshall Gilkes and Gary Versace’s lyrical piano), the MSO quickly gathered itself and swung hard, from a hushed opening through yearning, full-bodied ensemble passages into the charming reggae-tinged coda. It proved an inspired invitation into Data Lords’ contrasting aural portraits of disc 1’s grim “The Digital World” and disc 2’s expansive “Our Natural World”, and the Gilmore Festival audience, at this outlying event from an organization usually devoted to keyboard music of all genres, ate it up.

Pivoting to the dark side with the sardonic, Google-themed “Don’t Be Evil” (“and they can’t even live up to that low bar,” Schneider commented) bassist Jay Anderson set up the mocking tango pulse, Ben Monder spun out a fiercely rocking web of guitar, trombonist Ryan Keberle peeled off growl after growl, and Versace took the mood from pensive meditation to harried protest as the orchestra built menacing riffs behind them all. In the title role of “Sputnik,” baritone saxophonist Scott Robinson ran through an astonishing gamut of melodies, textures and sounds, feeling his way into orbit through the barbed obstacle course of his bandmates’ hypnotic, obsessively repeated laments. Throughout the afternoon, Schneider’s compositions proved gripping and brilliantly tailored to her players, while her conducting brought the music’s sure-footed rhythms and the group’s precision-tooled backgrounds into pin-sharp focus.

Flipping back to the natural world, soprano saxophonist Steve Wilson conversed with Johnathan Blake’s percussion (including wood-fired pottery?!?) and Julien Labro’s accordion on the pointillist “Stone Song”, with Schneider cueing gleefully off-kilter orchestral hits. Halfway between the two domains, tenor saxophonist Donny McCaslin (best known, along with Monder, for his playing on David Bowie’s Blackstar) attempted contact in the tense, Morse code-based “CQ CQ Is Anybody There?” — only to be answered by the dissonant howls of Greg Gisbert’s distorted trumpet, wickedly role-playing as artificial intelligence. During these works, the orchestra and Schneider listened hard to each soloist, visibly reacting to particularly special moments of improvisation, and shaping their support to match the fleeting moods.

Release followed tension quickly, via the throwback chart “Gumba Blue” from the MSO’s debut album Evanescence (with features from Gisbert, tenor saxophonist Rich Perry and Versace). Then the highlight of the afternoon: Schneider’s setting of the Ted Kooser poem The Sun Waited for Me” (originally written for soprano Dawn Upshaw and classical orchestra) translated stunningly into the big band idiom, with Gilkes and Labro “singing” the now-wordless melody while McCaslin pirouetted above, below and around lush ensemble backings that mutated from classical chorale to gospel groove. A ravishing experience!

But then, Schneider took the mike: “Can you handle this? This is about the annihilation of humanity at the hands of artificial intelligence . . . Sometimes it feels good just to face these things head on!” Cue the jittery, pulsating title track of Data Lords, with trumpeter Mike Rodriguez and alto saxophonist Dave Pietro raging against the dying of the light, and Schneider stoking the Orchestra’s encroaching singularity to a fever pitch in a shuddering apocalypse of a climax! Good thing we wanted an encore; Schneider decided to leave us with “something peaceful”: “Sanzenin”, a final vista from the natural world, with Labro fluttering over the Orchestra’s muted portrayal of a Japanese garden.

In sum, the overall impact of the MSO was overwhelming. Schneider’s thoughtfully crafted tone poems, her intense focus and leadership, her orchestra’s breathtaking ensemble playing and consistently creative, exciting solo work made for a musical experience that was visceral, invigorating, moving and beautiful in the highest sense of that word. Only the Bach Collegium Japan’s 2003 Saint Matthew Passion and King Crimson in Chicago in 2017 have been more powerful live shows for me. If you want to experience this one for yourself, I heartily encourage you to pay what you want and livestream the concert between now and April 12th!

— Rick Krueger

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