Maria, Maria, Maria

Sky Blue, Maria Schneider’s sixth album in 13 years, is at once her most ambitious and most fulfilled, a sweeping, gorgeous work about memory, dreams, love, life, death, the joys of birding…but I’m getting ahead of myself.

Schneider is that rare creature these days: the composer, arranger, conductor, and manager of a working 17-to-20 piece jazz orchestra. She studied with Gil Evans and Bob Brookmeyer, and her work reflects their penchants for stacked harmonies and swaying rhythms. A jazz critic I know once said of some of her earlier pieces, “Too much vertical, not enough horizontal”—lush chords, but no strong melody line to carry them. It was a minority view, and I didn’t agree with him, but I understood where he was coming from. I doubt that he, or anyone, would file the same charge against Sky Blue. The chords are still rich (and more multicolored than usual), but the horizontal movement is swift—there’s melody. Some of the numbers, in fact, have hooks like pop tunes, but their complexity saves them; there are too many hues and counter-themes swirling in the background to be mistaken for Top 40. These are emotional compositions—Schneider unashamedly pours her heart into them—but they’re also subtle and sinuous. It’s “program music”—some of it could even serve as the soundtrack to a romantic movie—but it’s not at all hackneyed.

Many of her band members have played with her for over a decade now. Like Ellington, she often writes with them in mind; and like some of Duke’s musicians, their styles have increasingly fused with hers. The solos by trumpeter Ingrid Jensen, pianist Frank Kimbrough, and reedmen Scott Robinson, Rich Perry, Donny McCaslin are stronger and more assured than on any previous album.

Joe Ferla, one of the top handful of jazz engineers, manned the controls, and the sound quality is stunning—the most vivid, realistic big-band recording since Basie’s work on Pablo in the ‘70s.

The CD is available only on the Internet, from or from the website of her record label, ArtistShare, a company that lets musicians own—and actually make money—from their products. That’s another reason to buy Sky Blue: to support a great, living artist.

Wes Phillips's picture

Fred played this for me last week and I immediately ordered a copy. Go thou and do likewise. It IS that good.