Maria Schneider at the Jazz Standard, '09

Maria Schneider’s early set last night at the Jazz Standard—part of her 17-piece Jazz Orchestra’s traditional Thanksgiving-week run—reaffirmed and advanced her position as the preeminent big-band composer of our era.

The time has long passed when she could adequately be pegged as an acolyte of Gil Evans. Though she did come up the ranks as his assistant, and still draws on his stacked, lush harmonies, her sound is distinctly her own. The melodic lines are now more propulsive, the rhythms more varied, the dynamics both brasher and suppler than anything her mentor devised.

Much of the set consisted of a suite from her 1996 album Coming About (which she reissued, in much improved remastered form, last year), opened and capped by a new composition, as yet unnamed. The new piece was gorgeous: airy, weighty, and cinematically evocative. And it jelled seamlessly with the older suite, which sounded much tighter and more passionate than I’ve heard it before.

One reason is that her band has also blossomed. More than half of its members have played with her for over 15 years. During that time, they’ve each developed their own sounds (many are leaders of their own fine groups) and figured out new ways to integrate them with hers. All the solos last night were masterful—sweeping exuberant, and expressive—though I’d single out those by pianist Frank Kimbrough, trumpeter Ingrid Jensen, saxophonists Donny McCaslin and Rich Perry, and guitarist Ben Monder.

They’re playing through Sunday (with Thanksgiving Day off). If you’re in the New York City area and can wrangle a ticket, go. If not, go to her website and buy some albums. (Her most recent, Sky Blue, is her best.) She also cares deeply about good, balanced sound, both live and on record, and her albums reflect that.

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James Harrigan's picture

My wife and I were at the Friday show, and I have to endorse what you said, Fred. Maria Schneider is doing some of the most compelling work in jazz these days. My only very minor quibble with her music is that it is sometimes a little static, with not much swing and rhythmic excitement. As for the soloists, yes - they are top notch. The set we saw included great features for Frank Kimbrough, Steve Wilson, and Scott Robinson (who was wearing the same outer-space-themed shirt he was wearing when we sat thsi band at the Standard two years ago...).

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