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No New Abnormal

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The Data Lords Are No Match For the Rest of Us in Maria Schneider’s Visionary Magnum Opus

Imagine what Hitler could have done if Facebook and Instagram had existed in 1938. There wouldn’t have been a single Jew or Romany person left alive in Europe. Or any musicians, artists, writers, or member of the intelligentsia.

All genuine art is transgressive. And fascists don’t like people who disobey.

There are a lot of little Hitlers working for the Trace and Track Corps right now who are datamining Facebook, Instagram, and every other digital platform including private phones.

You do the math.

So it’s kind of a miracle that Maria Schneider has been able to release her new album Data Lords in the year of the lockdown. In a career where she’s been widely acknowledged as the foremost jazz composer since the 1990s, this is a magnum opus, her bravest and most musically ambitious release yet. And it ends optimistically. As Schneider sees it, the people – and the animals, and the lakes and the trees – are going to win this war.

It’s a double album, the first titled The Digital World, the second Our Natural World. Schneider grew up in Minnesota, an outdoorsy kid whose love and advocacy for nature remains a persistent theme throughout her work. That resonates more strongly than ever on the second disc.

The first is protest music on the highest level of artistic expression, with Shostakovian irony and defiant Mingus humor. Improvisation seems to play an even greater role than ever in Schneider’s work here, and her brilliant ensemble attack it with reckless abandon and attention to the most minute details. It would take a book to dissect each of these pieces.

The opening number is A World Lost. Reduced to lowest terms, it’s basically a one-chord jam. From Frank Kimbrough’s elegaic, modally circling piano and Jay Anderson’s somber bowed bass, drummer Johnathan Blake adds mutedly shamanistic color. The orchestra develops a chromatic menace anchored by the low reeds, Rich Perry’s hopeful, defiant tenor sax pulsing through what could be groupthink. Anderson signals a rise to a fullscale conflagration; Perry’s tumble out of the sky, shadowed by guitarist Ben Monder’s atmospheric lines, is one of the most stunning moments on the album. Is this a portrait of the innate feebleness of the data lords, whose machines have not liberated but disempowered them? Or is this the failure of the world to realize the sinister implications of digital media?

The sarcasm in Don’t Be Evil – you know, the Google motto – is savage to the extreme. The quirky intro hints that these dorks couldn’t hurt a fly – but wait! A folksy caricature grows more macabre, with stabbing horns and a spastic, tormented guitar solo as a marching lockstep develops. Trombonist Ryan Keberle plays momentary voice of reason, Kimbrough the gleefully evil architect of an empire of spies with his phantasmagorical ripples. This might be the best song Schneider ever wrote.

Although CQ CQ Is There Anybody There predates the lockdown, it could be a portrait of what Del Bigtree calls the “illuminati of clowns” behind it. This one’s particularly creepy. There’s a persistent rubato feel to a large proportion of this disc, and this song is a prime example, from acidically swooping atmospherics and a descent into the murk with guitar lurking just overhead. Tenor saxophonist Donny McCaslin provides ebullient contrast over the growl as Blake builds wave motion, then trumpeter Greg Gisbert and his pedal become a one-man cheer section for impending doom as the orchestra fall in and out of sync, until his shriek signals complete control. Those masks will never come off again.

Scott Robinson channels a vast range of emotions on baritone sax, from burbling contentedness to valve-ripping extended technique throughout Sputnik. Kimbrough introduces it somberly, then it becomes a contented deep-space theme. The way Schneider weaves the initial disquiet back in is nothing short of brilliant; the group bring it full circle. A 5G parable, maybe?

The album’s title track and centerpiece has a cold vindictiveness, from the glitchy electronic sarcasm of the intro, through an anxious flutter of individual voices as Blake circles his kit. Trumpeter Mike Rodriguez chooses his spots over a grim vamp, offers a guarded optimism but finally grows frantic. Could alto saxophonist Dave Pietro’s menacing chromatics and wobbly microtones over Kimbrough’s tinkle be a cartoonish take on a Bill Gates type?  When everything completely and abruptly falls apart, leaving only glitches behind, Schneider leaves no doubt that the data lords are doomed – and as the rest of the record attests, there are better things ahead.

Our Natural World begins with Sanzenin, a steady, calmly pulsing anthem which could be a largescale Claudia Quintet piece with Gary Versace’s terse accordion at the center. Steve Wilson’s coy blippy soprano sax is joined by warmly rippling piano, followed by whimsical conversation between accordion and sax in the carefree Stone Song, a rubato samba with lots of quick staccato bursts from everybody

Kimbrough’s glistening, incisive chords introduce Look Up, trombonist Marshall Gilkes echoing that bright lyricism throughout several solos. Gospel allusions from the piano filter through the orchestra’s lustre: Schneider’s signature colors shine especially in the inventive harmonies between low and high brass. There’s a jaunty son jarocho bounce as it moves along, Versace’s accordion coming to the forefront once more.

Braided Together, the album’s shortest number, is a lustrously triumphant, anthemically pulsing pastoral jazz vehicle for fondly soaring alto from Pietro. Bluebird, the most epic track here, is a throwback to Schneider’s Concert in the Garden days, with Gil Evans sweep and expanse, a muscular rhythmic drive, Kimbrough fueling the upward climb. The rhythm section channel the Meters behind Wilson’s jubilant, blues-tinged alto sax; Versace leaps and spins like a seal in the water. The orchestra reach a blazing peak and then shuffle down to a fadeout

The Sun Waited For Me makes a benedictory coda, glistening highs mingling with burnished lows. Eventually, a soulful, increasingly funky ballad emerges,  McCaslin’s tenor ratcheting up the energy. A career highlight from a group that also includes trumpeters Tony Kadleck and Nadje Nordhuis, trombonist Keith O’Quinn, and George Flynn on the bass trombone.

As you would expect, the web abounds with live performances from Schneider’s rich catalog; at present, this is not one of them. Schneider has had a long-running beef with youtube, and considering what’s happened this year, who can blame her. This is a treasure worth waiting for when it comes out on vinyl. 

No Wasted Notes From Guitarist Amanda Monaco and Her Killer Organ Jazz Quartet

Beyond the obvious Jim Hall/Jimmy Smith collaborations, there haven’t been a lot of jazz guitarists leading organ bands. Guitarist Amanda Monaco is a welcome exception – it’s a role she excels at, although hers is hardly your typical B3 group. She’s leading a trio with Justin Carrol on organ and Jeff Davis on drums on Dec 20 at 8 PM at Cornelia St. Cafe; cover is $10 plus the usual $10 minimum. As a bonus, edgy, lyrical tenor saxophonist Roxy Coss leads her quintet afterward at 9:30.

Monaco pulled together a killer, refreshingly unorthodox lineup for her latest album, Glitter, streaming at Posi-Tone Records. Gary Versace plays organ, joined by Matt Wilson on drums and Lauren Sevian on baritone sax. Diehard organ types might feel that Versace is underutilized here, but ultimately this is all about the frontline: the way Monaco fills the role of a horn in tandem with the baritone is as interesting as it is innovative.

Monaco’s effervescent wit is in full effect right from the first droll around-the-horn echo effects of the album’s opening track, Dry Clean Only. Nicking the changes of Sonny Rollins’ The Bridge, the group motors along throught tight, purposeful growl from Sevian, similarly spaced clusters from Versace and some delicious off-beat cymbal work from Wilson.

Monaco learned Tommy Flanagan’s jaunty “let’s go” theme Freight Trane from the Kenny Burrell & John Coltrane album; the way the group hangs back, refusing to hit a straight-up shuffle in the beginning is tantalizingly fun. Gremlin From the Kremlin – a shout-out to Monaco’s husband written before the disastrous events of November 8, 2016 – comes across as a gruffly edgy, bitingly chromatic strut, part klezmer and part noir bolero: Versace manages to find his creepiest tremolo setting before Monaco sets a vector for an uneasy stroll.

Monaco and Sevian go way back together, so Girly Day takes its inspiration from their years of brunching and comparing notes on the trials of being female musicians in a male-dominated genre. It’s catchy but unsettled, with some neatly diverging harmonies and a priceless what-now solo from Wilson.

Inspired by Holly Golightly’s method for pulling herself out of the doldrums in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, The Mean Reds is a gutbucket strut, part Chuck Berry, part Jimmy McGriff go-go and part T-Bone Walker. Step Counter has a slightly staggered clave beat, low-key Giant Steps changes and similarly amiable guitar-sax conversations. Fred Lacey’s Theme For Ernie, popularized by Trane, serves as a moody launching pad for poignant solos by Sevian and Monaco.

Meant to evoke what must have been a hell of a hangover, Mimosa Blues is the album’s darkest number, Versace climbing around tirelessly through his most menacing, Messiaenic voicings, Monaco echoing that surrealism. The album winds up with the title track, a catchy, anthemic look back at Monaco and Sevian’s days in the early zeros getting ready for big-band gigs  If Dave Brubeck had been an organist, he might have written something like it. Throughout these tracks, it’s refreshing to the extreme to hear a guitarist so purposeful and individualistic, who never feels the need to fall back on tired postbop comping mechanisms.

Rob Garcia’s Finding Love in an Oligarchy on a Dying Planet: State-of-the-Art Jazz, 2016

Forget for a minute how few drummer composers have as much of a gift for melody as Rob Garcia. Or for that matter what an acerbic, smart lyricist he is. It’s impossible to imagine an album that more accurately captures the state of the world in 2016 better than his new release Finding Love in an Oligarchy on a Dying Planet. Isn’t that the challenge that pretty much everybody, other than the Donald Trumps and Hillary Clintons of the world, faces right now? Garcia’s critique is crushingly vivid, catchy as hell and just as erudite. He offers a nod back to the fearlessly political Max Roach/Abbey Lincoln civil rights-era collaborations, and has an aptitude for bustling Mingus-esque 50s noir. His first-class band includes Noah Preminger, a frequent collaborator (who has a killer new album of his own just out) on tenor sax, along with Gary Versace on piano and Masa Kamaguchi on bass, with Joe Lovano and Kate McGarry guesting on a couple of tracks each.

A cover of Stephen Foster’s Beautiful Dreamer opens the album, pulsing on an uneasy triplet beat until Preminger’s crafty lead-in to Versace’s spirals sends it into genunely surreal doublespeed territory, a time-warping nocturne. People Are Everything, a similarly uneasy jazz waltz, has Kate McGarry’s austere, Britfolk-tinged vocals channeling a similar angst and a hope against hope. Time and time again, Garcia’s message is that we’re all in this together, that it’s our choice to either sink or swim isn’t one that future generations will have.

Preminger’s tightly unwinding spirals sax over Versace’s insistent, acerbic piano deliver a vivid update on 50s noir postbop in the almost cruelly catchy Terror, Fear and Media: Garcia’s own artully terse propulsion so tight with the rest of the rhythm section, ramping up a practically punishing, conspiratorial ambience. Those guys are just hell-bent on scaring the bejeezus out of us, aren’t they?

Joe Lovano guests on the languidly aching ballad Precious Lives with a wide-angle vibrato, Versace following with masterfully subtle, blues-infused variations before handing back to the sax. Actor Brendan Burke narrates Garcia’s rapidfire, spot-on critique Mac N Cheese (Bank Fees, Dead Bees, Killing Trees, Shooting Sprees, War Thieves, Mac N Cheese) ) over a broodingly tight Angelo Badalamenti noir beatnik swing groove, a crushingly cynical, spot-on Twin Peaks jazz broadside.. Garcia follows this with the first of two tightly wound solo breaks, Act Local #1

The album’s title track makes plaintively shifting postbop out of a simple, direct Afro-Cuban piano rifff, then takes the whole architecture skyward, a showcase for both Preminger and Versace to sizzle and spin; it has the epic ominousness of a recent Darcy James Argue work, Versace adding a carnivalesque menace. The Journey Is the Destination makes a return to furtively stalking straight-up swing with Lovano again, McGarry rising with a determination that stops short of triumphant: where this will all end up is far from clear.

Guns Make Killing Easy opens as a surrealistically creepy, upper-register piano-bass duet and the swings morosely as Versace leaps with a clenched-teeth, macabre intensity balanced on the low end by Garcia’s coldly inevitable groove, Preminger adding nebulous suspense as the whole thing starts to go haywire and then turns into a requiem.

A tight, enigmatic two-sax chart opens Greenland Is Turning Green, both Lovano and Preminger judiciously prowling around over the hard-charging rumble underneath. The second pastorale here, Johnny Has Gone For a Soldier is reinvented as pensive mood piece, while Whatever Gets You By seems to offer a degree of hope with its flashy piano, bittersweet Preminger lines and tropical heat. The album winds up with a second solo Garcia piece, Act Local #2

Throughout the suiite, Garcia’s own impactful, tersely majestic riffs and rolls color the music with an often mutedly brooding thud, as coloristic as it is propulsive. You would hardly expect the best jazz album of 2016 to be written by a drummer, and it’s awfully early in the year to make that kind of choice. On the other hand, nobody’s going to release a more relevant or important – or tuneful – jazz album this year.

And at the album release show at Smalls this past at Smalls, Leo Genovese filled in for Versace, raising the tropical heat, yet with a more lighthanded approach, while Preminger shifted in and out of feral volleys of blues. And Garcia, whose signature sound is both one of the brightest and boomiest around – he uses every inch of the available sonic spectrum – reasserted himself as one of this era’s most colorful and uncompromising players, even taking a detour into a two-handed African talking drum conversation at one point. His next gig as a bandleader is on August 5 at 7:30 PM at Prospect Range, 1226 Prospect Ave. in Ditmas Park; take the F or G to Ft. Hamilton Parkway.

The Maria Schneider Orchestra Bring a Luminous, Relevant New Album to a Stand at Birdland

To pigeonhole the Maria Schneider Orchestra‘s latest magnum opus, The Thompson Fields. as pastoral jazz downplays its genuinely extraordinary beauty and epic sweep. But a musicologist would probably consider how much the vast expanses of the Minnesota prairie where Schneider grew up have influenced her writing. To call Schneider this era’s paradigmatic big band jazz composer would also be just part of a larger picture: among this era’s composers in any style of music, only Kayhan Kalhor and Darcy James Argue reach such ambitious and transcendent peaks. She’s bringing her Orchestra to a stand at Birdland this week, June 2 through 6 with sets at 8:30 and 11 PM.

As is her custom, Schneider’s compositions go far, far beyond mere vehicles for extended solos, although the solos here are exquisite and serve as the high points they ought to be. Scott Robinson’s alto clarinet dipping between heartfelt lows and airily triumphant swells on the opening number, a newly reorchestrated take of the early-morning nocturne Walking by Flashlight – from Schneider’s previous album Winter Morning Walks – sets the stage.

That number is the shortest one here: the rest of the album builds an expansive, dynamically rich Midwestern panorama. All of Schneider’s familiar tropes are in top form: her use of every inch of the sonic spectrum in the spirit of her mentor Gil Evans; endless twists and turns that give way to long, lushly enveloping, slow upward climbs; and her signature, translucent, neoromantically-influenced tunesmithing. Marshall Gilkes’ looming trombone and Greg Gisbert’s achingly vivid flugelhorn illuminate The Monarch and the Milkweed, a pensively summery meditation on the beauty of symmetry and nature. Robinson’s baritone and Donny McCaslin’s tenor sax take to the sky in Arbiters of Evolution, a labyrinthine, pulsing, slowly unwinding portrait of birds in flight (perhaps for their lives – as in much of Schneider’s work, there’s a wary environmentalist point of view in full effect here).

Frank Kimbrough’s piano and Lage Lund’s guitar carry the title track from its gentle, plainspoken intro through an unexpectedly icy interlude to gracefully dancing motives over lush waves of brass. The most pastoral of all the cuts here is Home, graced by Rich Perry’s calm, warmly meditatitve tenor sax. Then the orchestra picks up with a literally breathtaking pulse, inducing g-forces as Nimbus reaches its stormy heights, Steve Wilson’s alto sax swirling as the cinematics unfold. As a portrait of awe-inspiring Midwestern storm power, it’s pretty much unrivalled.

Gary Versace’s plaintive accordion takes centerstage amidst a rich, ominously brooding brass chart in the intense, elegaic A Potter’s Song, dedicated to the late, great trumpeter and longtime Schneider associate Laurie Frink. The album winds up on a joyously Brazilian-flavored note with Lembranca, inspired by a pivotal moment in Schneider’s life, spellbound by a carnival drum orchestra, Ryan Keberle’s trombone and Jay Anderson’s bass adding color and bouncy energy.

The album, a crowdfunded endeavor comprising newly commissioned works, comes in a gorgeously illustrated full-color digipak with extensive and articulate liner notes from the composer. Like a couple other pantheonic artists, Richard Thompson and Olivier Messiaen, Schneider is also a birder, and her commentary on current environmental crises affecting the avian world and her beloved prairie home turf are spot-on. Where does this fall in the Schneider catalog? It’s hard to say: there’s the ambition and scope of, say, Concert in the Garden, but also the saturnine majesty of Winter Morning Walks. It’s a new direction for her, no surprise considering how often she’s reinvented herself. And while it doesn’t seem to be up at the usual spots, i.e. Spotify and such, you can get completely lost in the radio feature at Schneider’s webpage. It’s the best possible advertising this album, and her work as a whole, could possibly have.