Maria Schneider does textures and patterns and the full range of possibilities that 18 musicians can provide. The result -- although she uses almost the same pattern of instruments as a standard big band -- is about as far from standard as you can imagine. Do not think the Boss Brass or Louis Armstrong: think Carla Bley and Darcy James Argue. Or maybe she's just sui generis.
You could see the difference immediately in the orchestra's first number: "Concert in the Garden". The lead instrument was an accordion -- and not an oompah accordion. Instead, in the hands of Ron Oswanski, it produced a slow and wistful melody that alternated with chords on the piano. Ben Monder added complications with some lightly-distorted electric guitar. And underneath these lead instruments were not only the bass (echoing the melody) and drums, but also a very light sound from the brass, filling in the sound without taking any prominence themselves.
Compare this to your standard brass-dominated, heavy-blowing big band!
Schneider writes all the music for her orchestra, many of whom have played with her for years. Some pieces played Monday night were written directly for certain musicians: most obviously "Rich's Piece", for tenor sax player Rich Perry, whose style she heard in her head as she wrote. Perry opened the piece with a mournful solo; the trumpets and muted trombones joined in in the background, but it remained his piece, becoming more urgent and then slowly fading to a reflective close.
"Dança Illusoria" was described as a foxtrot with Brazilian influences, and certainly pianist Frank Kimbrough was responsible for defining its sound with his romantic, full intro. But there was much more: a flute in the background added an airy touch, and the trombone solo gave the piece bounce and edge.
More memorable yet was "Allegresse", from Schneider's album of the same name. This featured Canadian Ingrid Jensen alternating between trumpet and flugelhorn, as well as Steve Wilson on soprano sax. Jensen's performance was a reminder of why live music is so exciting -- she took her solos far further and longer than she had on the album. Initially repeating the theme on trumpet and counterpointed by the soprano sax, she explored deep into unknown territory with exact control. She gave room to bass and sax, but then came back on flugelhorn, had a wild duet with Wilson's sax, and pushed the whole orchestra to a fanfare, before closing out with a long note on trumpet.
But what really inspired the audience's standing ovation was the closing piece, "Cerulean Skies", from Schneider's latest album, Sky Blue. Schneider is a bird-watcher, and explained that Central Park in her home of New York City is the twelfth-best birding spot in North America in April/May, as birds migrate north up the east coast. Inspired by that migration, Schneider wrote a four-part composition, starting in the morning sun, then reflecting the birds' physical changes as they prepare to migrate, then directly following one warbler during his migration, and finally ending with a chorale as the birds reach their destination.
It opened with bird warbles (produced by bird-call whistles), soon joined by piano with trumpets and trombones in the background. The accordion underlined the theme, and the whole orchestra joined in.
The second section was defined by Donny McCaslin's solo on tenor sax. McCaslin has a rough-edged, very aggressive style of playing -- think of him as the Sean Bean of the saxophone. It's not obviously suited to sweet bird song, but it worked. It increased in strength and speed, emphasizing the physical barriers to migration, and then finally wound down and circled out as the light piano and repeated notes on accordion took over.
The third section again featured the accordion and piano, supported by the entire orchestra, in an anthem reminiscent of Aaron Copland. The lead shifted back and forth between the bright happy accordion and the darker notes of Scott Robinson on baritone sax.
The fourth section opened with Charles Pillow's soaring solo on alto sax, circling higher and higher. The whole orchestra joined in the celebration, and then the piano and accordion slowly faded out, until only bird songs were audible.
The encore, "Sea of Tranquility" from the album Allegresse, featured Robinson against on baritone sax. He let his deliberate, thoughtful notes vibrate individually, and then was joined by the piano and brass playing softly. It was a pensive yet hopeful piece, ending in a fanfare from the whole orchestra and then fading it.
Like all of Schneider's pieces that evening, it was beautiful without being pretty, sad yet hopeful, and undoubtedly memorable.
— Alayne McGregor