London Jazz Festival – Maria Schneider Orchestra

Choro Dançado/Pas de Deux/Dança Ilusória
Hang Gliding
El Viento
Sea of Tranquility
Night Watchmen/Coming About

Maria Schneider Orchestra

Reviewed by: Rob Witts

Reviewed: 16 November, 2005
Venue: Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

The New York-based composer and bandleader Maria Schneider has a low profile in the UK, her name a well-kept secret among aficionados. This contrasts with her reception in the United States, where she has been topping Downbeat polls for some time, and where her most recent album, “Concert in the Garden”, won a Grammy, all the more impressive since it is only available online; her first concert with her Orchestra in London offered a chance to hear what we had been missing. An unnamed airline had contributed to this great event by losing half of the band’s instruments and parts, so pre-concert preparations had included Schneider buying sheet music, and downloading it from her own website, and sundry instruments being rustled up.

Not that this affected the diamond-tipped perfection of the Orchestra’s sound. Every chord gleamed with a steely Manhattan sheen, and the ensemble played with laser-guided accuracy, a testament to seventeen years playing together. Schneider’s music demands this; as with the music of Gil Evans, for whom she worked as his assistant, there is much of the French Impressionists in her use of timbre to convey meaning. The sounds she coaxed from the orchestra, conducting with balletic flair, were frequently beautiful: if, in the suite of pieces that opened the concert, this beauty edged into blandness, her gift for expressing poetic images in sound was revealed in the rest of the concert.

Hang Gliding, Schneider told us, was written to recall the breathless experience of throwing herself off a cliff in Brazil; there was a lovely moment as the bass fell away, leaving chords floating unsupported. Likewise, Coming About was a jazzy La mer, Frank Kimbrough’s introductory piano solo establishing the ebb and flow of the tide. Like all good bandleaders, Schneider writes to her players’ individual characters; Sea of Tranquility was a feature for the otherworldly wail of Scott Robinson’s baritone sax; elsewhere, Greg Gisbert gave a great, gut-busting trumpet solo on the Latin-tinged El Viento, and Scott Robinson’s soprano sax was haunting on the encore, Sky Blue. The ecstatic and lyrical Clarence Penn was a constant enlivening presence on drums.

There may be some who prefer the looser, more improvisatory type of big band; fans of Mingus or Loose Tubes may well be frustrated with Schneider’s lush and elegant precision. But this music belongs to a different branch of the tradition, and is more stimulating and enjoyable than many American composers writing for the symphony orchestra. Let’s hope that Schneider, her Orchestra (and instruments) make it back to London soon.

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