|Duke Ellington and Fletcher Henderson made their first important big-band recordings seventy years ago, back when Calvin Coolidge was in the White House and Charlie Parker was in short pants. A lot of water has gone under the bridge since then. Big bands are still around, and still as musically vital as they were in 1926 - but they don't sound the same. The dance-oriented bands of the '30s and '40s are now a thing of the distant past. Today's big bands perform in clubs and concert halls, and their music is for listening, not dancing, so much so that a growing number of musicians prefer to call them "jazz orchestras." No matter what you call them, though, there's something about the sound of large jazz bands that continues to make audiences sit up and take notice, and causes composers to grab for their pens. That's why seventeen of New York's top jazz musicians get together every Monday night at Visiones, a New York nightclub, to play the music of Maria Schneider. They could be making better money doing almost anything else, from recording jingles to doing clinics. But Monday nights at Visiones aren't about money: they're about music. So is this CD.|
If you've been to Visiones to hear the Maria Schneider Jazz Orchestra - or if you've heard Evanescence, the band's 1994 debut album for ENJA - you won't be surprised to learn that Coming About is no ordinary big-band record. You won't hear any blues in D flat, or standard-issue flagwavers with a shot chorus tacked on at the end. The centerpiece, 'Scenes from Childhood,' is a suite in three movements that begins with the angry howl of air-raid sirens (simulated on a theremin by baritone saxophonist Scott Robinson) and ends, half an hour later, with iridescent clouds of sound that shimmer into silence. It is one of the most ambitious jazz compositions heard on record in years, and it makes perfect sense when you look at Maria's resumé: she studied composition with Bob Brookmeyer, and spent three years as Gil Evans' musical assistant. From Brookmeyer, she learned how to create large-scale musical structures that add up to more than just a string of solos; from Evans, she learned how to blend instrumental colors with a Ravel-like precision and clarity.
Working with these two masters of big-band writing inspired Maria to develop a completely original sound of her own. "I think my music has a strong element of fantasy in it," she says, explaining that the inspirations for her compositions are as likely as not to be visual: dreams, paintings, memories. "If I don't have a dramatic plane to put myself on," she adds, "I'm at a complete loss for coming up with notes. Actually, I think of my pieces as little personalities. They're like my kids. After I finish a piece, it takes a while for me to forget the struggle of composing it. Then, all of a sudden, it becomes something separate from me, and the band takes control of it, and shapes and develops it, and it has its own life."
'Scenes from Childhood,' commissioned in 1995 by the Monterey Jazz Festival, is a good example of Maria's method: each of the three movements was inspired by a youthful memory. 'Bombshelter Beast,' the first section, recalls "the gut-wrenching fear of illogical things I'm almost embarrassed to admit. You know, monsters under the bed - that kind of thing. Only I was terrified that these monsters would come out of the bombshelter my father built back in the early '60s. And atomic bombs, too. I thought about the bomb every time the air raid siren sounded, or whenever I heard the Emergency Broadcast System announcements on the TV. Remember? 'This is only a test.' And if A-bombs didn't freak you out, there was always the next tornado to worry about - we got a lot of tornados in Minnesota, where I grew up. I tried to put all that fear into 'Bombshelter Beast.'"
'Night Watchmen' is an eerie nocturnal landscape set outside Maria's childhood home. "We lived near a flax plant on the outskirts of town," she recalls. "The atmosphere was surreal: men working in the mill by day, watchmen making the rounds at night. I remember their shadows - they passed by our home,and around the warehouses - and I remember the strange feelings I had watching them. That's what 'Night Watchmen' is about: imagination and fantasy. And about discovering your own sensuality: attraction, repulsion, confusion."
The tension built up in the first two movements is dispelled in 'Coming
About,' a major-key musical reminiscence of summer days spent sailing on a Minnesota lake. "'Coming About' is a sailing term for taking a new tack. You get a real feeling of fulfillment when a gust of wind ripples its way toward you from across the lake, taking the sails, and you along with it.
Not all of Maria’s pieces are as specifically impressionistic as 'Scenes from Childhood.' Take 'El Viento,' commissioned by Carnegie Hall in 1994 for the Carnegie Hall Jazz Orchestra. The title is Spanish for "the wind," and the feel is flamenco-inspired. But this is no picture postcard from a musical souvenir shop: 'El Viento' is a true composition for jazz orchestra, a piece in which color and structure come together in a coherent whole. "I wanted a chamber-orchestra feel," Maria says. "I like lots of room for the vibrance of the instruments. I also want improvisation to be interwoven with composition. I like to use soloists to develop my pieces – to help me get from point A to point B. That’s why I usually have the playing over different musical material. And in 'El Viento,' the solo colors also help the piece build to a climax. First Ben Monder, with his big, round sound. Then Larry Farrell, whose sound is dark. Then Greg Gisbert on Trumpet – so rich and brilliant."
Two tracks on Coming About, 'Love Theme from Spartacus' and 'Giant Steps,' were written by other people, Alex North and John Coltrane. Not surprising, both come out sounding like pure Maria Schneider, especially 'Giant Steps,' in which she expands Coltrane’s whirlwind harmonic obstacle course into a bristlingly complex study in augmented chordal relationships (which is also – perhaps not coincidentally – the hardest-swinging cut on the album). That’s one way to tell a real jazz composer from what a musician friend of mine calls a "composeur:" his arrangements are every bit as individual-sounding as his compositions. Ellington was like that, and so is Maria. Every note she writes is as personal as a fingerprint.
Liner notes continue...written by Terry Teachout
|El Viento - Ben Monder (gtr), Larry Farrell (tbn), Greg Gisbert (tpt)|
|Love Theme from 'Spartacus' - Rich Perry (tenor sax)|
|Bombshelter Beast - Scott Robinson (baritone & theremin) Ben Monder (guitar|
|Night Watchmen - Rich Perry (tenor) Tim Hagans (trumpet)|
|Coming About - Frank Kimbrough (piano) Rick Margitza (tenor)|
|Giant Steps - Rock Ciccarone (tbn), Tim Hagans (tpt), Tim Ries (alto)|
|Waxwing - Greg Gisbert (fluegelhorn)|
|Mark Vinci - alto and soprano saxes, clarinet, flute and alto flute|
Tim Ries - alto and soprano saxes, clarinet and flute
Rich Perry - tenor sax
Rick Margitza - tenor sax
Scott Robinson - baritone sax, bass clarinet, clarinet, flute and theremin
Tony Kadleck - trumpet and fluegelhorn
Greg Gisbert - trumpet and fluegelhorn
Laurie Frink - trumpet and fluegelhorn
Tim Hagans - trumpet and fluegelhorn
Keith O'Quinn - trombone
Rock Ciccarone - trombone
Larry Farrell - trombone
George Flynn bass - trombone
Ben Monder - guitar
Frank Kimbrough - piano
Tony Scherr - acoustic and electric bass
Tim Horner - drums