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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. 

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.

Ryan Truesdell’s Gil Evans Project Does It Again Live at the Jazz Standard

Pretty much everybody, at least in the jazz world, agreed that Centennial: Newly Discovered Works of Gil Evans, by conductor and Evans scholar Ryan Truesdell’s Gil Evans Project, was the best album of 2012. You rarely see that kind of consensus. Even for an ambitious jazz bandleader, it was an enormously labor-intensive achievement. Truesdell also left himself little wiggle room for a sequel: pretty much anything was destined to be anticlimactic. So Truesdell – who has probably spent more time unearthing rare and previously unknown Evans compositions and arrangements than anyone else – flipped the script. Rather than emphasizing the iconic big band composer’s genre-smashing, paradigm-shifting later works, the group’s new live album, Lines of Color features a lot of older material. It’s also on the upbeat side: Evans’ music is Noir 101 core curriculum, and what’s here tends to be more lighthearted than Evans typically is. So there’s another cult audience – the oldtimey swing crowd – that will probably love this if they get to hear it. You can hear this mighty, stormy, dynamically rich, twenty-plus-piece group when they play their annual residency at the Jazz Standard starting this Thursday, May 14 and running through the 17th, with sets at 7:30 and 10 PM. It’s pricy: $30, and $35 on the weekend, but it’s worth it. Remember, the club doesn’t have a drink minimum (although they have a delicious and surprisingly affordable menu if you feel like splurging).

The new album opens with a punchy, sleek take of the noir waltz Time of the Barracudas, from the iconic 1964 album The Individualism of Gil Evans. On the heels of a bouncy Marshall Gilkes trombone solo, tenor saxophonist Donny McCaslin takes it up with an aptly marionettish pulse through a series of a playful hints at endings. The band follows by reinventing Bix Beiderbecke’s Davenport Blues as a lustrous slow drag, Mat Jodrell’s trumpet carrying its triumphant New Orleans tune much of the way. This version is notable for being exactly the way Evan originally wrote it before many better-known revisions, right down to the second line-flavored break midway through.

Avalon Town both embodies its dixieland origins and transcends them – those oceanically eerie close harmonies as it opens are a prime example of how Evans could take something utterly generic and make magic out of it. And you thought you knew (or wish you’d forgotten) Greensleeves? Just wait til you hear the mighty outro and warily tasty Marshall Gilkes trombone solo that concludes it.

John Lewis’ Concorde, another track from The Individualism of Gil Evans, has more of a jet-age ebullience and plushness than the uneasily bossa-tinged original – here Lois Martin’s viola plays Lewis’ original righthand figure for piano. Singer Wendy Gilles does a marvelously nuanced job, ranging from fullscale angst to playful cajolery on Can’t We Talk It Over, over a pillowy backdrop with Evans’ signature high reed/low brass dichotomy. Later on, she offers an elegantly cheery take of Sunday Drivin’.

Gypsy Jump, an early work from 1942, reveals that already Evans was doing things like hinting at Tschaikovsky and opening with a figure he’d recycle memorably later on with Miles Davis. It’s lternately neblous and disarmingly oldtimey, McCaslin’s sax enhancing the former and Steve Kenyon’s clarinet the latter. Then the band makes a medley of Easy Living, Everything Happens to Me – centered around Gilles’ heartfeld, angst-driven, tersely bluesy phrasing – and another Johnny Mercer tune, Moon Dreams, which builds to a galactic sweep, dreamy JMW Turner colors over that omnipresent low, murky pulse.

Just One of Those Things is another mashup of vintage swing and lush sophistication, Steve Wilson’s purposefully fluttering yet unresolved soprano sax solo at the center. The album ends with a take of How High the Moon that’s on the slow side – at least for a song that so often gets played lickety-split – with an exchange of barely bar-length solos frou throughout the band, bassist Jay Anderson and drummer Lewis Nash pushing it with what’s practically a shuffle beat. You like epic? You like counterintuitive? You like venues with exquisite sound? The album was recorded in this very same space, most likely in front of a sold-out house, but it’s a big-studio quality production. Some if not all of it is up at Truesdell’s webpage along with tracks from that amazing first album.