Portland Jazz Festival Opening Night – Maria Schneider Orchestra – February 2017

Portland Jazz Festival Opening Night – Maria Schneider Orchestra at Newmark Theater

From time to time, Audiophile Audition will offer reviews of concerts or festivals of note.  This review is from the opening evening of the Portland Jazz Festival, earlier this year.

Maria Schneider’s first ever west-coast tour allowed Portland Jazz fans a much anticipated opportunity to see her 18-unit band in performance. One envies those who experienced this music for the first time, as it hugely enlarges one’s sense of what is possible in the medium of jazz. It is oft noted that Maria Schneider’s music has its roots in mid-western Americana. Indeed, many of her famous pieces evoke landscape: farm and field, water and animal life. In this regard, she is jazz heir to Barber and Copland.  While her musical vision and sensibility are as distinctive as any of the great Jazz composers, a great part of her appeal is her affirmation of solid things, real experiences, the fragility of the connections and values that sustain life.


Yet her mastery of tonal color and her ability to conjure so much out her band is unique. In spite of hours of listening to her recordings and carefully attention to her work on stage, I’m still baffled by how her two waving arms can coax out layer upon layer of coloristic detail, counterpoint, expressive nuance and, at times, raw energy. Moreover, she is an outstanding composer with a lyrical gift that draws inspiration from folk melodies and the classical art song.

The concert began with the contemplative “Potter’s Song.” The accordion has a special role in the texture of the ensemble, and here it took the first solo spot as well. On the following, “El Viento,” we plunge immediately into the deepest waters. This composition from 1996 stands out, even in her own body of ambitious works for its ensembles and dramatic concerto-like drama.

Twenty years later, it feels remarkably fresh.  The band left nothing out, offering a vehement solo from Danny McCaslin and a billowing solo from trombonist Marshall Gilkes that completely filled the Newmark theater with a luminous sense of well-being.  Furious but musical drumming by Clarence Penn and an exuberant upper range fanfare solo by Greg Gisbert produced a palpable sense of euphoria in the room.

An intricate chart from the debut recording Evanescence followed, “Gumba Blue.” When Maria was not conjuring the ensemble weave with ballet grace and focus, she was standing aside with radiant appreciation of the individual efforts of accordionist Gary Versace, saxophonist Steve Wilson, always good for some outside-the-changes fluttering, and Trombonist Ryan Keberle.

“Home” from the new album followed. Exquisite and modest in design, it was deeply felt. The solo spot was wisely entrusted to Rich Perry, who elicited a deep sense of exile and longing tempered by a hope that accepts the vulnerabilities of life.

Her most vivid piece and only new composition from the concert was “Big Data,” which she introduced as a depiction of a world menaced by super-human and ultimately self-destructive technology. Imbued with furious rhythmic energy and vehement solos, it was a masterful artistic rendering of the Machine vs. Human, and it represents something new from a composer whose artistic vision continues to expand outward.

Directly we left the future and returned to a world of comprehensible dimension and pleasing horizons. These involve pea-fields in a Minnesota wind-storm “Thompson Fields” and lake and a boat “Coming About.”  “Winter Morning Walk” was prefaced by a poem of the same name. As tone poems, these pieces succeeded at every level, whether considered in terms of jazz or classical music. In every case the soloists showed how well they inhabited this musical landscape, while at the same time demonstrating an individuality of expression and method. For me and a number of savvy old-timers, the eccentric multi-instrumentalist, Scott Robinson delivered the finest solo of the night on “Winter Walk.” Lage Lund’s guitar stood out on “Thompson Fields,” while Steve Wilson and Donny McCaslin and pianist Frank Kimbrough all played with energy and eloquence. The encore, “Sky Blue,” returned us to the same clarity and serenity of the opening number.

We leaves a performance of this sort almost humbled in the the role of recipient to so much beauty and joy. Likewise, we are transformed and deeply appreciative of the folks who put on the Jazz Festival and to all those who made this ambitious music happen.

—Fritz Balwit

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