Maria Schneider Orchestra – Data Lords – ArtistShare

by | Aug 11, 2020 | Jazz CD Reviews | 1 comment

Maria Schneider Orchestra – Data Lords – ArtistShare #ASO176- 2 CD – 53:00 / 43:07 – *****

Maria Schneider is a pre-eminent jazz composer known for lush, gorgeous compositions, blending jazz, classical, folk, and Americana themes. She has been honored with multiple Grammy Awards and is always at the top of Downbeat Magazine’s Critics List, winning this year as Best Composer, Arranger, and Big Band leader. In addition, she has been a fierce advocate for musicians fighting for compensation from streaming platforms such as YouTube, as well as copyright abuse. She has filed suit against YouTube, and testified in front of Congress. Her CDs are released by ArtistShare, which is fan-funded.

Her latest effort, Data Lords, a 2 CD set, in a sumptuous gate fold package, was supposed to be issued earlier this Spring, backed by a national tour with her full 18 piece orchestra. However, the tour and CDs, were sidelined by the COVID-19 epidemic. We are fortunate that the double CD set has been released, and the agonizing wait is over. 

Maria’s vision of the often times vicious digital world vs. the neglected “natural” world (art, poetry, unblemished landscapes, and especially open-eared silence) is brought to full fruition here, with Disc 1 titled “The Digital World,” and Disc 2 named, “Our Natural World.” Though our digital connection can provide needed communication throughout the world, its rush to commercialism through mining customer’s spending habits, and allowing manipulation of our daily life through addicting platforms, has corrupted its intent to improve our lives, and equalize our world’s inequities. The extremes between the digital world, and a more tranquil (you might say “healthy”) world has never been greater. Daily we look down at our digital devices, while ignoring the simple beauty of the “natural” world around us.

Disc 1 opens with “A World Lost.” Guitarist, Ben Monder, sets a mood that is disquieting and escalates. 

Rich Perry, on tenor sax, enters and his choruses echo a plea for a simpler, more coherent time where nature is valued over the race for the next bragging tweet, or the newest fad to appear for its two day life span. Perry blends an impassioned blues over drummer Johnathan Blake’s drums, and the brass section’s fanfare. A crescendo is reached in the last minute before its energy seems to be spent, like a wounded animal’s last moments. It’s a dark space…

“Don’t Be Evil” was Google’s motto briefly at the turn of the century, before critics’ reaction caused it to be toned down as a marketing tool. Maria’s composition of the same name is a stick a finger in the eye of this behemoth for its phony attempt at righteousness, while allowing rampant commercialism without ethics, and lack of accountability. The musical arrangement is both jaunty and mocking, a blend of some New Orleans jazz, quickly merging into full orchestral motifs.  Then Ben Monder has some rock star moments (a la Hendrix?), bending notes, while the drums blaze. It’s foreboding darkness is a new journey for Maria to express anger and moral outrage. Ryan Keberle’s trombone is put to full use to spit out lines of fire towards the hypocrisy of this media juggernaut. Frank Kimbrough’s gentle piano solo then helps turn us back, seeming to say, “there is a better path forward, follow me..” The horns then re-enter to go forwards towards a brilliant light.

“CQ, CQ, Is Anyone There?” takes a trip back towards a much older effort of international communication with Morse Code and Ham radios. It was a much gentler time, with efforts to share and explore, and NOT to dominate. Electronic effects are used to replicate Morse Code messages (Is Anyone There..?). Donny McCaslin’s tenor sax, and Greg Gisbert’s electrified trumpet lead the voyage, that much later turned towards AI (Artificial Intelligence), with more sinister, less humanistic ethics. Schneider takes us down a dark hole to view its cacophonous mind bending implications.

“Spitfire” finds Scott Robinson, a master of saxophones, exploring the mystery of outer space, and our “mining” of the universe by sending up satellites into the skies to enable transmission of “data,” some healthy (families connecting via Skype) vs. nefarious usage (spying). Robinson blows both hot and cold, tender and bellowing, to explore this dichotomy.

Portrait Maria Schneider

Maria Schneider

“Data Lords” (will AI turn against its inventors?) immediately finds the horns stepping up with a layered cloak, rising and falling. Mike Rodriguez (electrified trumpet) and Dave Pietro (alto sax) solo, and Blake pushes the tempo. The brass section soars with ensemble blowing. Around mid-tune, Pietro helps bring an almost Middle Eastern feel, and the brass answers his urgency. They merge into an impassioned plea. Then spent, they struggle to “return to earth” and re-enter the sanity that Disc 2 (The Natural World) provides.

Disc 2 opens with “Sanzenin,” inspired by the Temple gardens just outside of Kyoto, Japan. It features Gary Versace, on accordion, an instrument vital to many of Schneider’s compositions. Here it is playful, a breath of fresh air. The horns gently back Versace. “Stone Song” makes use of “space” to let listeners savor and appreciate the soloists’ craft – Steve Wilson (soprano sax), Versace (accordion), and the entire rhythm section (Kimbrough, Anderson, and Blake). Percussion flows a “rolling” stone’s path. It’s a sweet, whimsical tune, taking on the joy of a child.

On “Look Up,” Maria’s intent, noted in her excellent liner notes, was to stimulate a sense of exploration of the skies, looking up, instead of down at our electrical “umbilical cords.” Marshall Gilkes, on trombone, leads the horns as they take us up high. Such joy here…

“Braided Together” is a tribute to Schneider’s favorite poet, Ted Kooser. His celebration of “simple objects” shows an imagination that AI can never replicate. Dave Pietro, on alto sax, has a sublime solo.

“Bluebird” is one of Maria’s favorite flyers. She remembers a male bird in her field establishing its territory by showing a pesky swallow that it should share the property (may be a good tune to argue for a detente between our natural world and its digital connections?). Steve Wilson has a spunky alto sax solo, and Versace follows with a solo showing grace and beauty.

Disc 2 ends with an exquisite “The Sun Waited for Me.” It is an instrumental version of Maria’s “Winter Morning Walks,” which was originally written for voice soprano star, Dawn Upshaw. Featuring Donny McCaslin and Marshall Gilkes, it plays to Schneider’s brilliant strength, utilizing chorale like arrangements to lift and soar spirits, lightening our load (Damn, we need it now…)

Gilkes’ trombone melody melts away tension, then McCaslin enters with a bluesy tenor solo to bring a little “healthy grease” to spice up what the sun will bring to the new day.

This is a very special release, well worth the wait. It will surely garner awards. Both weighty, inspiring discussion, and deeply moving, Data Lords, demands repeated listening sessions to take in its magnitude and riches.

Please visit Maria Schneider’s Website for more information:

Maria Schneider Orchestra:  Data Lords
Maria Schneider – composer, conductor
Steve Wilson – alto and soprano sax, clarinet, flute, alto flute;
Dave Pietro – alto sax, clarinet, flute, alto flute, piccolo
Rich Perry – tenor sax
Donny McCaslin – tenor sax, flute
Scott Robinson – Bb,bass and contra-bass clarinet, baritone sax, mason
Tony Kadleck – trumpet, flugelhorn
Greg Gisbert – trumpet, flugelhorn
Nadje Noordhuis – trumpet, flugelhorn
Mike Rodriguez – trumpet, flugelhorn
Keith O’Quinn – trombone
Ryan Keberle – trombone
Marshall Gilkes – trombone
George Flynn – bass trombone
Gary Versace – accordion
Ben Monder – guitar
Frank Kimbrough – piano
Jay Anderson – bass
Johnathan Blake – drums, percussion

Disc 1-The Digital World:
A World Lost
Don’t Be Evil
CQ,CQ, Is Anyone There
Data Lords

Disc 2 – Our Natural World:
Stone Song
Look Up
Braided Together
The Sun Waited For Me

—Jeff Krow

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