Maria Schneider's Jazz Orchestra: Thanksgiving Week at the Jazz Standard

For 13 years now, Maria Schneider and her Jazz Orchestra have played Thanksgiving week at the Jazz Standard in New York City, and, judging from the late set on Tuesday, they just keep getting better and better.

I've been following Schneider closely since the mid-1990s, when she and the band played every Monday night at Visiones, a small, now-defunct club in Greenwich Village. The door fees gave her enough to pay each band member $25 and herself $15, the cost of cab fare to and from her apartment on the Upper West Side. Several years passed before bookers and producers came in for a listen and came back with a contract. Now, she produces and markets her own records through the musician-owned label ArtistShare, wins Grammys, and earns commissions from orchestras worldwide as well as for her own 19-piece big band, roughly one-third of whose members have been with her since nearly the beginning.

They don't play together that much—they all have gigs, as leaders or sidemen, elsewhere—yet it's as tight as ensemble as any traveling big band from an earlier era, and I include those of Ellington and Basie in the comparison.

Early on, many critics swooned over their proficient navigation of Schneider's dense harmonies and swaying rhythms but lamented the lack of great soloists; in that sense (as well as several others), the band resembled those of Gil Evans and Bob Brookmeyer, her two main mentors in composition and arrangement. Around a decade ago, that suddenly changed, and several of her players—notably the saxophonists Rich Perry, Scott Robinson, and Donny McCaslin—emerged as great soloists too, soon followed by other players. The rhythm section—pianist Frank Kimbrough, bassist Jay Anderson, and drummer Clarence Penn—is as clairvoyant and supple as any stand-alone trio on the scene.

At the set I saw this week, the band played mostly pieces from her early albums, and it's startling to hear how a couple decades of collaboration and woodshedding can baste an old tune with new flavors. They also played one new composition, "Sanzenit," inspired by Schneider's visit to a peaceful temple garden north of Kyoto during a recent tour of Japan. It was a precious, meditative ramble, full of lush whole notes and settled dissonances. They'd only played it once before, and the main soloist, Gary Versace on accordion, hadn't played it ever; but it seemed fully lived-in. The set ended with "Walking by Flashlight,"' inspired by a Ted Kooser poem, first featured on Schneider's album with singer Dawn Upshaw, Winter Morning Walks and adapted as an instrumental number, featuring reedman Scott Robinson, for her latest and best album, The Thompson Fields. On the album, and in other concerts I've seen, Robinson plays his solo on alto clarinet, but Tuesday night he unwound it on baritone saxophone, and it was as gorgeous as ever.

Tickets for Schneider's concerts sell out quickly. Next time she comes to your town, buy early and often. Meanwhile, The Thompson Fields makes for scrumptious listening, followed by Concert in the Garden and Sky Blue.

dalethorn's picture

I've sampled Schneider's music on several occasions based on reviews here, and in spite of turning away each time, I made another effort to dig in and see if I could find even one track of hers that I could learn to like. I have so many genres of music in my collection, amounting to thousands of tracks by a thousand artists, that I couldn't possibly fail to find at least *one* enjoyable music track, but fail I did. Whatever the hook is to get into her music, I can't find it.