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Troy Savings Bank Music Hall
Troy, NY
February 9, 2007

By J Hunter

Maybe this is the Big Band era. A select group of today's musicians is galvanizing the format with an amazingly creative aesthetic: Dave Holland and Charles Tolliver have both contributed ground-breaking large-unit discs within the last year; the Mingus Big Band continues to serve up awesome renderings of their muse's catalog; and PlanetArts had a shot at a Grammy earlier this month thanks to the efforts of Jim McNeely and the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra.

Then there's Maria Schneider, who is currently recording the follow-up to her Grammy-winning disc Concert in the Garden (ArtistShare). Schneider broke the MSJO out of the studio for a quick weekend tour, and Troy Savings Bank Music Hall was lucky enough to get one of the dates. The house was full on a bitter-cold evening, and the frozen were rewarded with two sublime sets that filled the room and warmed the soul. “I smell a fun evening coming on,” the waiflike Schneider said slyly at the end of “Evanescence”, the title track from her first disc as a leader. The frigid walk to the car notwithstanding, there's no way this night could not have been fun!

Consider some of the participants: Tim Hagans was playing with MSJO for the first time in eleven years, and his trumpet ripped through its mute on “Evanescence” to add fire to the concert's expansive opening number. It was multi-instrumentalist Steve Wilson's birthday, and Schneider gave him a spotlight role on the new composition “Sky Blue”; Wilson thanked her with a stunning soprano sax solo that swung from mournful to triumphant. Pianist Frank Kimbrough was the anchor of the rhythm section, occasionally breaking out to give us elegant, evocative solos that combined jazz and classical themes.

I was getting happy flashbacks all night long from last year's Bethel Woods Jazz Festival: Saxman Donnie McCaslin and drummer Clarence Penn were part of the phenomenal quintet Dave Douglas used to close the festival; bassist Jay Anderson had laid the bottom for James Emery's chamber-jazz trio; and Scott Robinson (who can - and does - play anything with a reed attached to it, with spectacular results) did a surprise stint with Paquito D'Rivera after only getting a minor role in John Pizzarelli's big-band tribute to Frank Sinatra. Robinson's role here was, thankfully, much more pronounced, while McCaslin added flying, gliding tenor sax to “El Viento (The Wind)” and “Three Romances.”

Schneider plays no instrument in concert - or, more precisely, the orchestra is her instrument. When she wasn't excitedly breaking down each piece for the audience in terms of structure or influence, she stood in front of the ensemble and conducted, sculpting the air like a Tai Chi master as she guided her musicians through the peaks and valleys of her complex creations. It's a shame Schneider doesn't have a camera on her while she works, because her face is a picture of smiling bliss as she conducts with eyes closed, watching her writing unfold behind her eyelids.

Schneider's music definitely has jazz at its root, offering her players plenty of room to move. (“Sometimes the older music is more fun,” she confided to us, because of the new perspectives her players bring to the performance.) However, none of the pieces came close to traditional jazz configuration; instead, they unfolded in movements and episodes, like opera or ballet. Every composition was a journey, with layer upon layer of twists and turns, and at the end there were usually sighs of pleasure or gasps of astonishment.

It's easy to say Maria Schneider is simply expanding the work of her mentor, legendary arranger Gil Evans. That outlook completely discounts the brilliance of Schneider's writing and the skill with which she brings out the best in the musicians who make the notes live. After experiencing the intensity and creativity of this wonderful musical mind, it's a mistake I'll do my best not to repeat.

J HUNTER is a former announcer/producer for radio stations in the Capital Region and the Bay Area, including KSJS/San Jose (where he was Assistant Music Director/Jazz programming), Q104 WQBK/Albany, and WSSV/Saratoga. He has also written music and theatre reviews for the Glens Falls Chronicle. He currently resides in Clifton Park.