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Maria Schneider - Sky Blue Print E-mail
Monday, 01 October 2007
format:    16-bit CD
performance:    9
sound:    8
released:    2007
label:    ArtistShare
reviewer:    Scott Yanow

ImageMaria Schneider has for the past decade been considered one of the most inventive and brilliant arrangers and composers in jazz. While some of her earlier pieces are quite forbidding, there is always a great deal of humanity that is felt in her writing, as she transforms memories and events into music.

During the past few years, Schneider’s writing has become a bit more accessible and melodic while still having the potential to go in any direction that occurs to her. While Gil Evans and Bob Brookmeyer were early inspirations, she has been a true original from the start, with Bill Holman being her only close competition among jazz-based writers of current times.

The musicians who play in the 17-piece Maria Schneider Orchestra have to not only be superb readers and improvisers (virtually all the players are potential soloists) but also have emotional sounds and flexible approaches. Some of the music they’re expected to interpret probably looks impossible at first, but magically it all comes together before their performances and recordings. On Sky Blue there are guest appearances by Gary Versace on accordion, two percussionists and Luciana Souza, whose voice is utilized as part of the ensembles on two pieces.

The five originals on Sky Blue are all major works. “The ‘Pretty’ Road” was inspired by memories of Maria as a child riding with her family in the car in rural Minnesota. It begins with the wistful piano of Frank Kimbrough, the orchestra (with Souza) continues the mood in the ensembles and Ingrid Jensen plays a complementary trumpet solo utilizing electronics to create an echo effort, before the ensemble brings the piece to a quiet close.
Scott Robinson, a highly versatile musician who can play any style on practically any instrument (particularly reeds), is in the forefront on clarinet throughout “Aires De Lando.” Inspired by a visit to Peru, the music hints strongly at both Peruvian music and flamenco and has shifting time signatures that make the seemingly effortless playing of Robinson and the orchestra rather remarkable; how can they sound so relaxed?

Tenor saxophonist Rich Perry takes an unhurried and lyrical solo throughout “Rich’s Place,” sounding melancholy over the ensembles, recalling a bit Stan Getz’s playing on Eddie Sauter’s Focus. The orchestra seems to be commenting on Perry’s improvising throughout the piece, although the opposite is closer to the truth.

The nearly 22-minute “Cerulean Skies” could be subtitled “A Day In the Life of a Forest.” One hears wildlife in a forest gradually waking up, with bird sounds and the feeling of many creatures co-existing. Donny McCaslin’s tenor pops up as a different type of animal but one that fits into the forest quite well, throughout a passionate solo. Versace’s accordion and Kimbrough’s piano interact closely to keep the mysterious and magical feeling going. Altoist Charles Pillow brings the piece to a joyful conclusion, along with the celebratory ensemble. “Sky Blue,” a bittersweet memory of a close friend who had passed away, has Steve Wilson’s soprano as the lead voice and attests to a friendship that never ends.

All in all, Sky Blue may very well be Maria Schneider’s most significant and touching recording to date. Highly recommended.

A great deal of work went into this project, not just in the writing and recording but in the remastering, to get the ensembles just right. One has little difficulty hearing all of the instruments clearly but Maria Schneider’s musical vision comes across just as she intended. It is a pleasure to hear this major orchestra recorded so well.

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