By Allen Michie
“The sun and everything in this world is there waiting for us—patiently and loyally. To feel its power, we just need to make the choice to get up, go out, look up and connect to its magnificence.” That is really, truly, there in the music.
Someone once wrote of the Beatles that it is incredibly rare for the most experimental artists in a genre to also be the most popular. “Popular” is of course a relative term in jazz—alas, we do not yet live in the utopian world where the police are called out for crowd control and ambulances are standing by when the Maria Schneider Orchestra disembarks from airplanes. But Schneider has been at the top of readers’ and critics’ polls in the jazz magazines for Best Big Band, Best Arranger, and Best Composer for over twenty years now. She has a devoted following for her live club dates in New York, increasingly rare as she has happily shot herself in the foot by helping to make her musicians much more famous and expensive.
There are many justifiably popular jazz composers and arrangers out there. What’s remarkable about Schneider is that, like Duke Ellington, Stan Kenton, and Gil Evans before her, she has altered our perception of what a big band can sound like. And she has done it by developing a singular voice and style. It’s difficult to recommend a single Schneider record, in the same way that it would be difficult to recommend a single Ellington disc. I recommend her new release Data Lords, but even more urgently I’m recommending her entire discography. It’s within the context of her whole career that Data Lords is best understood, so I’m taking the long way around in this review in hopes that you’ll fill up your shopping cart when you order Data Lords at artistshare.com.
Schneider had an excellent pedigree as a young musician, studying with Bob Brookmeyer and becoming a copyist and shadow arranger for Gil Evans. The Evans connection is often remarked upon, but I think it’s overstated. In fact, it comes off as a bit patronizing 30 years after Evans’ death. Schneider has at least matched what Evans achieved with his famous orchestrations for Miles Davis, although comparisons are difficult because Schneider doesn’t compose for guest artists (David Bowie excepted, because Bowie is always an exception), and her work over the last decade is significantly more complex and focused than Evans’ later rock-influenced arrangements.
Schneider’s first album, Evanescence (1994) pays tribute to Evans in its title and in some of the more conventional big band arrangements. Like the early Ellington had the Cotton Club, the early Schneider had the benefit of a steady gig at the New York club Visiones from 1993-98 to get its sound together. Also, like Ellington, she earned the loyalty of her coterie of players the hard way—by respecting their artistry, challenging them, and making them want to commit to the collective effort for the sake of the music. Many of these players have remained with her for over 25 years now (half of the players on Coming About from 1996 are still on Data Lords in 2020). As a result, like Ellington, she has the luxury of composing for and around her players because their voices are now her voice.
Coming About (1996) is a snapshot of the Visiones years. Schneider is still playing some standards such as “Giant Steps,” “That Old Black Magic,” “My Ideal,” and “Over the Rainbow” here and on another live record, Days of Wine and Roses (2000). Some of her own compositions and arrangements swing and have solos over changes, dating from her early work as a student at the Eastman School of Music in the ’80s. “That Old Black Magic” shows off the band’s traditional swing chops—they sound a bit like the Mel Lewis big band, another favorite of Schneider’s who performed some of her early charts. But then “Over the Rainbow” knowingly selects exactly what parts of the familiar melody to leave out, retaining just the broad platforms of harmony and inviting your imagination to fill in the rest. It’s as if Schneider is saying “Yes, I can cut it with the traditional big bands, so can we move on now?” Coming About hints at the new direction with a three-part composition, “Scenes from Childhood.” Her future isn’t going to be in another finger-popping arrangement of “That Old Black Magic.” It’s going to be in narrative musical autobiography, which means Schneider needed to get out of New York jazz basements and live a life worth writing about.
Schneider took a vacation to Brazil and Peru. It expanded her music. She strapped herself onto a hang glider and jumped off a cliff in Rio de Janeiro. She traveled the US premiering commissioned works from increasingly prestigious organizations and foundations. You can hear the fruits of all of this—and a stirring musical account of the hang-gliding experience—on Allegrésse (2000).
Concert in the Garden (2004) is a major leap forward. “I came to a realization through writing this that has taken me many years to find—I am indeed a musician,” Schneider writes in the liner notes. “I became completely dependent on writing to find my serenity. It became the only thing that could make me feel unshakeable and unbreakable—like submerging in the ocean, far beneath the waves.” The album is a musical travelogue of places real and imaginary. Schneider makes a transformational addition to the overall sound and feel of the orchestra with accordionist Gary Versace, who thankfully has been with the band ever since (and plays masterfully on Data Lords). The accordion gives the orchestra more of a World Music texture, evoking in turns Mexico, Italy, Brazil, France, and Argentina. There are Latin rhythms and scales, and the Evans and Brookmeyer influence is augmented by the more abstract influences of flamenco, tango, and ballet (seen in Schneider’s graceful and idiosyncratic conducting style). Another major addition was the wordless vocals of Luciana Souza, which Schneider uses as a new instrument and not as a traditional featured “girl singer” in front of the band. The major solo voices are beginning to now come into their own, the way it often does with the classic jazz big bands: with Concert in the Garden, it was now no longer possible to think of the orchestra’s sound without thinking of Versace, tenor saxophonist Donny McCaslin, pianist Frank Kimbrough, trumpeter Ingrid Jensen, saxophonist Tim Ries, guitarist Ben Monder, and others. Like the Ellington or Basie bands, it’s a group of all-stars, and she helped to make them all stars.
I will add bass trombonist George Flynn to this list of essential players. While he’s not a solo star, he has been with the band from the very beginning. The focused, resonant, and powerful sound of his notes, often at the very lowest end of the bass trombone range, ground the harmonies of the entire band and are synonymous with the characteristic sound that makes a Schneider arrangement sound like a Schneider arrangement. This one player can make this 18-member band sound like an entire symphony orchestra. Listen to him on the title track of Concert in the Garden—Schneider pairs the quiet and calm high notes of the piano with the low end of Flynn’s bass trombone, suggesting the full range of emotionally penetrating music we have just heard between the two. Flynn’s trombone is always there when this music gives you chills.
The next three records canonized Schneider as one of the 21st century’s greatest composers and arrangers—not just in jazz, but in all of American music. Taken as a set, Sky Blue (2007), Winter Morning Walks (2013), and The Thompson Fields (2015) demonstrate an animated imagination, a magnificent ear for melody and harmony, and a big ol’ heart. All three, especially The Thompson Fields, are informed by Schneider’s love for the Minnesota countryside where she grew up. “Hopefully the memories evoked are not only mine, but all of ours,” Schneider writes in the liner notes, “the kind of memories that often season the mundane with a sprinkle of magic, and transform simplicity and even bleakness into richness and exoticness.” The music becomes longer, more personal, and—importantly—more narrative. Each of these pieces tells a story or paints a sound picture of a scene. “The Pretty Road” from Sky Blue, for example, is a trip down a pretty country road (although “pretty” is too diminutive a word for what you’ll hear on that journey–it’s just about the most gorgeous piece of jazz you could ever want to hear). Flight and open skies become recurring themes in her music. “Cerulean Skies” is about a flock of birds, flying together en masse, and then zeroing in to imagine the thoughts and experience of a single bird within the group (not unlike a soloist in an orchestra). It’s music of lifting, liberation, and an organic discipline. It’s also 22 minutes long, more like a movement from a symphony than a jazz standard. Schneider has flown waaaay over “Over the Rainbow” territory by now.
Winter Morning Walks is arguably Schneider’s most advanced and moving album. Schneider takes key players from her orchestra and incorporates them into rapturous arrangements for the Australian Chamber Orchestra and the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra. (As great as her own big band is, I hope Schneider will continue writing for strings.) Half of the album is musical settings for Ted Kooser’s poems, a perfect match for Schneider, as both find a wellspring of restorative emotion in the simple images and rhythms of nature and rural settings. Kooser’s poems bring profundity and honesty, Schneider’s musicians bring the jazz improvisor’s spontaneity, Dawn Upshaw’s voice brings the human element and a perfectionist’s classical veneer, and the chamber orchestra brings a sense of an ever-expanding pastoral horizon. The combination is at times devastatingly beautiful.
Schneider continues to build upon the pastoral themes and indulges the nostalgia for her Minnesota homeland in the Grammy Award-winning The Thompson Fields. This is the record that most directly sets up Data Lords. Schneider’s signature style is now well established—narrative tone poems, sometimes swelling orchestrations, and exploratory epic solos set in the context of alternately jabbing and cushioning horn arrangements. I have no idea how she gets a sound of French horns out of a band with no French horns (it’s sorcery passed on from the wizard Gil Evans). “The Monarch and the Milkweed,” for example, is about how beauty emerges from symmetry, which is reflected in the parallel voicings and interwoven melodic themes. “Home” opens with tenor saxophonist Rich Perry’s gentle single note. “The sound just melted me,” Schneider writes, and it’s preserved in the take on the CD. Treasures like these, large and small, are to be heard on every track. (Incidentally, The Thompson Fields marks the apotheosis of CD packaging. Schneider always richly rewards you for buying an original rather than pirating a copy. Why can’t all CDs be elegant little hardback books with beautifully printed illustrations and literate, informative text?)
By this time Schneider was no longer just a musician. She is now a writer and a designer, explaining the narrative dimensions and inspirations for her music in the detailed and enjoyable liner notes. By 2017, she was writing essays, giving keynote addresses, and testifying before congressional committees about intellectual property and the rights of musicians in the age of Spotify, YouTube, and other streaming services. Her music is not available on any of these, and if you want to hear the music, you need to pay your share to her and her musicians. Even in the early 2000s, when people were declaring the death of physical media, Schneider ran a CD-only business. She has won Grammy awards while remaining totally free of the corporate music industry, funding her recordings with the help of individual donors on the ArtistShare label. She is also an outspoken environmentalist and a keen bird-watcher.
The birds are important to Schneider, so they’re important to her music. Data Lords is the album that pulls together much of Schneider’s musical history and fuses it with the person she has become and the issues she cares about: the threat to artists and the human spirit by technology, the disconnect between people as a result of digital culture, the redemptive power of nature, and, yes, why we should stop sometimes and appreciate birds. The second of the two discs of Data Lords is partially the follow-up to The Thompson Fields that you might expect, both musically and thematically. But disc two cannot be heard in isolation from disc one, and there Schneider throws away the old rulebook and gives herself and the orchestra entirely new challenges.
The premise of Data Lords is that the two discs represent the two worlds we now live in: “The Digital World” and “Our Natural World.” The uncredited poem in the liner notes lays out the contrasts and sets the agenda for the music:
one clutters the mind
the other clears it
one seduces and exploits
the other nurtures
one ultimately isolates
the other truly connects
one clamors for our attention
the other simply awaits it
one force-feeds answers
the other inspires questions
one manipulates our thoughts
the other grants freedom of thought
Any contemporary bandleader must live in a world permeated with technology. There is a video on the contributors-only part of the ArtistShare website of Schneider touring the Data Lords recording studio, and she marvels at large video screens where her isolated musicians will watch her conducting—so even that most intimate level of musical human contact is mediated now. This instinctively pastoral composer must live in a world of patch chords, amplifiers, music-writing software, edit bays that look like they belong in a NASA control room, remote interviews with the media, and, of course, the usual drone of online life that surrounds us all. Much of this time she must be wanting to sit barefoot looking out the window in the hayloft of a Minnesota barn, as she is in a photo from The Thompson Fields. But she has faced this cultural contradiction head on in Data Lords. What’s notable is that she doesn’t just complain about the ominous threats and abuses of the technological world—she provides an antidote to them. Disc one asks questions, which is easy enough to do. But disc two provides answers, which is much harder.
“The Digital World” is by far the bleakest work Schneider has done, something you don’t fully appreciate without having first heard Sky Blue, Winter Morning Walks, and The Thompson Fields. This is Schneider walking down the dark alleyways of Silicon Valley, not driving down a pretty road. “CQ CQ, Is Anybody There?” has an alarming trumpet solo by Greg Gisbert that introduces screechy, harsh electronics to the formerly bucolic landscape of the orchestra. The band does not ebb, flow, and swell beneath the soloist—it taps out Morse code in dissonant intervals and rapid, unpredictable key changes.
It’s essential to read the liner notes for each track. For example, we learn that “Don’t Be Evil” is a harsh takedown of Google, accusing them of everything from undermining the democratic process to abetting child sex trafficking. “This piece mocks Google as the cartoonish overlord that it is,” Schneider writes, and the music starts out with a loping shuffle, like a huge awkward monster trying to tiptoe past without us seeing it. The arrangement pulls the orchestra in several directions at once, harmonious but without a sense of a unified direction, like Google itself. The brass plays something like a fanfare, stacked on top of other fanfares, none of them quite syncing up into a rousing whole—a bit like Google’s self-promotions. Pianist Kimbrough’s accompaniment is much more abstract and dense than his usual style, and Monder on guitar is typing in key words to search for unmentionable things on the seamier side of the web. This one’s not likely to get much play in the Google staff ping pong room.
“Data Lords,” the final track on the first disc, is about artificial intelligence and Stephen Hawking’s dystopian prediction that AI potentially spells the end of the human race. Competing and interlocking motifs replicate and metastasize, threatening to overwhelm before Mike Rodriguez’s trumpet solo with electronics (sounding completely different from Gisbert’s electric trumpet on “CQ CQ”) enters to change the feel. Rodriguez and alto saxophonist Dave Pietro engage in virtuosic almost-free dialogues with drummer Johnathan Blake. Not for nothing does the booklet include a picture of Pietro and Blake embracing. The track ends with the arrangement—and the technological era, and perhaps humanity itself—slowly collapsing into a sad, disordered mess.
After Schneider has exposed our digital demons, which is where most other artists would stop, she adds a second disc, “Our Natural World,” that exorcises them. Taken on its own, it is in many ways a conventional Schneider record—“Look Up” and “Bluebird” are about putting down your damn phone and casting your eyes toward the “sky, trees, birds, clouds, or simply at each other” (ref. Sky Blue). “Sanzenin” is a tone poem about a far-away and exotic garden (ref. Concert in the Garden). “Braided Together” and “The Sun Waited for Me” are inspired by the crystalline poems of Ted Kooser (ref. Winter Morning Walks). Perhaps the newest conception on the disc is “Stone Song,” a whimsical piece featuring Steve Wilson on soprano saxophone in conversation with Versace’s accordion, about a little stone that rattles inside a traditional clay orb. The influence of Thelonius Monk peeks out in spots, which is appropriate given that Wilson sounds a bit like Steve Lacy, a frequent and affectionate interpreter of Monk’s music.
There are many moments of unironic sublimity on “Our Natural World.” But does it work? Is the contrast of the two discs a clever gimmick, just a framework for structuring some otherwise unrelated compositions, or does Schneider actually deliver on the challenge of that opening poem? My own answer is a conditional yes.
Yes, if you listen to both discs back-to-back with your full attention, like you were sitting down for a two-hour movie. This album won’t work on shuffle play or heard in fragments in the car. The cumulative effect is powerful if you give yourself over to it, and that is a much richer and rewarding experience if you trust Schneider to take you someplace. That trust comes easier when you are familiar with her entire catalog of work and know the issues she cares about. “The Digital World” emerges as her manifesto against everything that limits the expressive range of the human spirit. “The Natural World” becomes a summarizing afterword in Schneider’s musical autobiography that illustrates the natural forces that keep her creative compass pointing true north.
I would provide links to examples, but they aren’t on YouTube. I wish you could listen to “Data Lords” and then immediately listen to “The Sun Waited for Me.” “Data Lords” is about the distortion and corruption of “intelligence” and the sometimes overwhelming power of pessimism. “The Sun Waited for Me” begins quietly and beautifully, a world in harmony with itself and the people in it. McCaslin’s tenor sax solo is a masterpiece, an assertion of the individual personality on the horizon of the infinite. “I’ve chosen to end this with it, leaving us with the simple and reassuring truth that the sun and everything in this world is there waiting for us—patiently and loyally,” Schneider writes in the notes. “To feel its power, we just need to make the choice to get up, go out, look up and connect to its magnificence.” That is really, truly, there in the music.
After giving each band member a featured photograph in the booklet, there is a two-page spread of the entire orchestra in the studio. They are wearing their comfortable recording session clothes. They have been hard at it all day, reading difficult charts and soloing their butts off. For the most part, they look rumpled, tired, but also proud and confident about what they did that day. Maria Schneider sits in the center, absolutely beaming.
Allen Michie works in higher education administration in Austin, Texas, and he has a PhD in English Literature. He is a Jazz Lord and a Backgammon Lord in his spare time.