There's very little I can say about Maria Schneider at this point that hasn't been said better by someone else. She is, almost without a doubt, the most important "jazz composer" in the past twenty years. The new album, Sky Blue, has catupoulted her critical assessment into a whole new category- BBC Music called her one of the important composers in her generation. Not jazz composer, just composer. A whole generation of players, writers and big band leaders are, or have been, in the business because they heard Evanessence, her first album.
In this day and age, it's always fascinating to hear an "art" big band live. Big band music is one of the few places in jazz or improvised music where a live show can feel like a "greatest hits" rock show- the band plays the charts as they are written (that's kind of the point), even if they're old, and it's possible to go in knowing every note of every chart, and consciously or subconsciously comparing what's happening to what you're used to hearing on your stereo. And, like most of my writing peers, I know most of Maria's records really well.
That said, a live show of this music is also illuminating. The modern big band album (the modern orchestral record, and pop records too) is a completely artificial product, in that you can mix, master and tweak it to make a flute sound louder than a trumpet section. (Or make Fergie in tune...) While the sound engineer in a live setting can do wonders, and did- Maria listed him as the 19th member of the band- you get a truer sense of what a chart really sounds like, what the composer imagines and implements in real time. (The chance to play these charts, or sit inside a rehearsing band, affords a different but equally valuable experience. While you don't get the whole picture of a piece, you can hear relationships and a physical sense of things that no mixing board can capture. If you care about Maria's or really any big band music, I would beg, bribe or cajole my way into one of these experiences, even if only with a local college band. The amount I've learned sitting in the sax section playing Basie, or Bob, or Maria is invaluable.)
If none of this music had ever been recorded, this show would've knocked the audience's socks off. All of Maria's strengths- her amazing orchestration, her ability to completely integrate the soloist into a composition, and of her soloists to complement what she writes, her phenomenal (and possibly underrated) knack for counterpoint- shone here. (Obviously, it's not absolutely acoustically "pure"- Maria lists her sound engineer as the 19th member of her band, and he was spectacular.)
The concert spanned all six of her albums, including two numbers from the new "Sky Blue". The highlight of the show was "Cerulian Skies", a piece she wrote for Peter Sellers' recent Mozart festival. On the album I have to admit that the piece confused me- it builds beautifully on a tremendously simple theme from the opening through Donnie Macaslin's burning solo, then stops for an extended piano/accordian duo, which on the recording kills the momentum of the piece. But live, it seemed to flow better, building slowly again to the climactic alto solo by Charlie Pillow.
A standing ovation brought an encore, an arrangement of "My Ideal" that dates back more than twenty years to her Eastman days. It's a lovely, really really good college band arrangement, complete with shifts from ballad feel to double time to 3/4 and back, and a 5 flute(!) soli in for good measure. It was a fascinating close after an evening of phenomenally forward looking music, to be reminded of exactly how much ground Maria has covered, and really unearthed, in a fairly short span of time.
NOTE: Maria continues a weeklong run at the Jazz Standard in NYC tomorrow night. If you can, go- this venue seems to treat her really well, she has a larger version of her band, and it'll kill.