By Steve Feeney
Radiating shaman-like mysteriousness, Maria Schneider prowled the performance space, calling forth dark twists and turns from the collective while summoning anguished expressions from soloists.
Maria Schneider with the NEC Jazz Orchestra, streamed March 10.
I have long admired the work of composer and bandleader Maria Schneider. I’ve never had the chance to see her perform live, but the next best thing came along; I welcomed the opportunity to review an online concert streamed from Boston. In pandemic times, unfortunately, the safety of a digital remove remains necessary (for not too much longer, we hope).
After a weeklong residency as part of the New England Conservatory “Grow Your Art” program, Schneider took the helm of the NEC Jazz Orchestra for a performance that had been recorded on March 4.
An orchestra of mostly masked, black-clad students were socially distanced, sitting before music stands and microphones. Schneider, a very youthful 60-year-old, lamented that the musicians could not be arranged in a closer, more traditional formation. Still, this setup afforded viewers an opportunity to fully appreciate her highly animated conducting style. Schneider was a show-in-herself, contributing a quasi-choreographed performance that brought one remarkably close to the spirit of her music, that helped make it alive and in the moment.
The six pieces were performed with enormous subtlety and grace, with evidence of the lighter and (more recently) darker colors associated with Schneider’s artistry. There was also plenty of fire in the solos; these young performers are only a step or two away from professional careers (about which Schneider was brought in to offer some down-to-earth pointers during her residency). The sound mix was generally very good; perhaps the drums were just a little too distant.
The selections spanned the composer’s recorded career, with two pieces from her much lauded 2020 release Data Lords (ArtistShare) front and center. (Arts Fuse review)
Given the brief introduction, in which Schneider wondered aloud if humans would be able to keep up with advancements in artificial intelligence — and what might happen if we do not — the ominous tone of the music seemed unmistakably apt.
Radiating a shaman-like mysteriousness, Schneider prowled the performance space calling forth dark twists and turns from the collective, while summoning anguished expression from the soloists, notably Ben Mizach, who served up a full, free-jazz frenzy on alto sax.
“Sputnik” worked through its 12-key, “brass-centric” progression with less spookiness, but the performance still emphasized an essential otherworldliness. Joey Rosin’s solo on baritone sax sent signals back to a distant musical world down below.
“The Pretty Road” was a reflective work. Schneider noted that the tune has autobiographical implications. Zoe Murphy blew a probing flugelhorn solo that was enhanced by some well-timed electronic echoes and delays. A dreamlike sense of reflection pervaded the performance. Inspired by the work of poet Ted Kooser, “Walking by Flashlight” placed its conundrum at the center of a soft-focused ballad, an enigma gently expanded upon by Aaron Kaufman-Levine on alto sax.
An early work called “Gumba Blue” confirmed the composer’s jazz roots with a charged-up, post-bop middle section brought home by Michael Brehm on trumpet and George Behrakis on piano.
Adding a mix of Brazilian and Argentine flavors, “Choro Dançado” finished the hour-plus concert. Stephanie Borgani offered wordless vocals and Ian Buss swung loose on tenor sax as Schneider took adroit control of the rhythm through a fascinating series of physical cues to the group.
It was a memorable performance by a student orchestra undoubtedly brought to new heights by the visit of a master musician at the peak of her powers.
Steve Feeney is a Maine native and attended schools in Maine, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts. He has a Master of Arts Degree in American and New England Studies from the University of Southern Maine. He began reviewing music on a freelance basis for the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram in 1995. He was later asked to also review theater and dance. Recently, he has added BroadwayWorld.com as an outlet and is pleased to now contribute to Arts Fuse.