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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.

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