LIVE: Maria Schneider Orchestra @ Troy Savings Bank Music Hall, 3/8/19

The Maria Schneider Orchestra

Review by J Hunter
Photographs by Rudy Lu

The Maria Schneider Orchestra hasn’t recorded in over five years, but that’s no big whoop: From the beginning, the Gil Evans protégé has never done anything small, so it takes a while to come up with the kind of complex originals Schneider considers just everyday tunes. During her recent appearance at the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall, Schneider announced that she was going back in the studio later this year – this time for a double-disc date called Data Lords, complete with dueling themes: One dealing with the encroachment of “Big Data” on our lives (and how badly that might turn out), and the other focusing on “the natural world,” and how we’re losing it bit by bit. In short: Refried Ellington, it’s not!

Even before Schneider focused on all her new material, the soloists on the dynamic early composition “Wyrgly” gave us a taste of the rampant vibe Schneider’s latest compositions called for. While trombonist Marshall Gilkes was on maximum attack, playing with big bands is basically his thing. The same cannot be said for the killers who played on either side of Gilkes’ solo: Mostly Other People Do The Killing tenorman Jon Irabegon and Wilco guitarist Nels Cline. Irabegon’s insane spotlight moment was the only one a grinning Schneider took time to watch from start to finish, while Cline (made almost unrecognizable behind a pair of black horn-rimmed glasses) worked stomp boxes and switches from his seat to weave the kind of unhinged alchemy that sends Jeff Tweedy’s music beyond the stratosphere.

Schneider eased into her new stuff with “Bluebird” (“One of my favorite birds,” she enthused), a gorgeous piece that evoked the soaring sounds of her 2007 release Sky Blue – coincidentally, the disc she was showcasing the last time I saw MSO at The Hall. Ron Oswanski soloed beautifully on accordion, but because his chops are very 21st-century, this was no Django Reinhardt throwback thing. Put those notes through Oswanski’s primary axe – the Hammond B3 organ – and the house would have literally come down. The accordion also offered marvelous counterpoint to Frank Kimbrough’s always-amazing piano work without overpowering it. Kimbrough helped cool down the scalding heat of the following piece “Don’t Be Evil,” which Schneider tartly pointed out was the former motto of Google. “That’s like an ophthalmologist posting a sign in the waiting room that says, ‘We Gouge No Eyes Out.’” She laughed. “YAY! Sign me up!!”

To see Schneider conduct is like watching a martial-arts master practice tai chi, sculpting the air as she lets the music literally move her around the stage. She never stays stationary and has abandoned her earlier practice of conducting at the side of the stage while facing the audience. It’s a shame there’s no way we can see Schneider’s face while she conducts: I’ve sat on the side of the stage during the MSO’s annual Thanksgiving Weekend shows at NYC’s Jazz Standard, and watching her connect with the musicians is almost as beautiful as the sound they create together. Despite The Hall’s stage being WAY bigger than Standard’s, musicians still had to walk around Schneider to get to the designated solo spot to the right of center stage. Schneider even had to conduct around altoist Alejandro Avila and trumpeter Bernard Lee during “Data Lords” so she could urge Cline even further on.

It was a good thing Schneider brought “natural world” pieces like “Tork’s Café” and “Stone Song” to the party, as they made great palate cleansers after darker works like “Sputnik” and “Data Lords,” which come at you like the soundtrack for a prequel to “The Matrix.” Based on a truck stop Schneider waitressed at back in the day, “Tork’s” let Cline and trumpeter Greg Gisbert play the blues Schneider’s way while bringing the “sleaze factor” Schneider joked about when describing her pre-music gig. “Stone” introduced us to Stony, a piece of wood-fired Japanese pottery that had a single stone rattling around inside of it. Schneider was so enamored with the piece that she immediately wrote the whimsical, child-like piece that let drummer Johnathan Blake add the pottery to his already-voluminous percussion arsenal.

As harrowing as they were, it was the “Big Data” pieces that conjured the most awe, both from a compositional and an instrumental standpoint. “Sputnik” painted an image of the Earth surrounded by satellites (and, by extension, our data) that conjured up the first off-world scenes in “2001: A Space Odyssey.” Ryan Keberle is no stranger to bringing the protest song to the jazz genre, but his snarling performance on “Don’t Be Evil” was so powerful, I thought he was going to yank the slide out of his trombone at the end. Avila and Lee set both individual and band benchmarks for madness and cacophony during “Data Lords,” creating the cataclysm that may come when the world’s computers reach the “moment of singularity” and decide they don’t need us anymore.

The encore of “A World Lost” – a recent composition getting its debut on this night – acted as a mournful coda for the evening, giving us an aerial view of the wreck of our modern world while the natural world grows over it and consigns it to history. The layers were cultivated by Kimbrough, Cline (on lap steel), bassist Jay Anderson and tenorman Rich Perry, and while the depression was great in the piece, so was the beauty. The expressions I saw throughout the night across the 18-person bandstand all basically said the same thing: It was an honor and a pleasure to play these far-flung, far-sighted pieces by one of the world’s great composers. It may have taken a while for these pieces to come into the world, but when it comes to music this riveting and this truthful, Maria Schneider can take all the time she wants.

GO HERE to see more of Rudy Lu’s photographs of this concert…

Maria Schneider
Alejandro Avila and Brandon Lee
Frank Kimbrough
Jon Irabragon and Maria Schneider
Steve Wilson
Ron Oswanski
Nels Cline and Johnathan Blake
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