By Philippe LutzIAugust 3, 2022
A year ago, Maria Schneider was, like many people, stuck in a pandemic waiting pattern. With live concerts for the Maria Schneider Jazz Orchestra canceled or postponed, she spent an inordinate amount of time cleaning up archives, reconciling discrepancies in old scores for the sake of posterity.
“I didn’t want to leave bits of stuff lying around with mistakes,” she said recently. As the impact of the pandemic subsided, she turned to other projects. Nothing has been more pressing than scheduling bookings for the 18-piece orchestra, which won the award for Great Jazz Ensemble of the Year in the 2022 DownBeat Critics poll, as it has every year since 2007.
After 18 months without concerts – the longest period of inactivity in the band’s 30-year history – it reappeared at the outdoor DC Jazz Festival in September. The experience, according to Schneider, was flawed: the set was short, the wind was nasty, and a few tempos were a bit off. “It was a bit difficult,” she said.
Yet it also proved cathartic, providing a long-awaited opportunity for the band to release material from their Grammy-winning double-disc opus. Data Lords. Despite Kinks, renditions of tracks like “Don’t Be Evil”, “Sputnik” and the title track proved that everything would be fine. A few more gigs, ending with a week at Birdland in March, confirmed this proposition.
“We made the stench go away,” Schneider recalls with a smile.
The successful return was by no means predestined. A European tour scheduled for February has been canceled due to a spike in COVID. Beyond that, the death in December 2020 of the group’s pianist and power behind the throne, Frank Kimbrough, weighed heavy. The consensus replacement was Gary Versace, the band’s highly respected accordionist, but no one knew how that would alter the delicate balance of the whole thing.
“It’s hard when you have people, and your band is built around them, and they’re so much a part of your sound,” Schneider said. “You ask yourself, ‘How is this going to change? Will it look like a loss? There are just a lot of emotions and things.
“The whole band felt it. I think Gary felt it: ‘How can I come in and now make all of this my own, while still honoring the kind of dynamic that we’ve built over the years’, which, by the way, by the way, was also built by Gary.
For his part, Versace was realistic: “There is a transition period to adapt to a new person and a new musical voice on the instrument, because Frank was so much a part of what the group is. So I’m just trying to respect that.
While Versace felt the loss as much as anyone – Kimbrough was both colleague and friend – the accordionist’s 20 years with the orchestra gave him the potential to take the piano chair and make it his own.
“They both have the aesthetic of being great listeners and collaborators,” Schneider said, adding that Versace “sculpts each note with the amplitude of how he hits the note. It’s not just the line , not just the chord. That’s how he strokes them.
Versace, Schneider said, not only brought a new voice to the piano, but also eased the way for Julien Labro, who occupied the accordion chair, a position made more delicate by the presence of a guitar in the group.
“I have a rhythm section with three chord players – it’s usually a disaster,” Schneider said. “So I appreciate musicians who really appreciate not playing, listening and waiting for the right moment to come in. Gary helped Julien find that space.
She said Versace could lead her to try new types of piano writing, and Labro, whose experience extends to the classical realm, could lead her to new paths for the accordion.
Data Lords, inspired in part by his collaboration with David Bowie and his penchant for the darker writing of his early period, represents something of a return to that mode. The album reflected his concerns about big tech companies. But this subject has, for the moment, run its course in his work.
“It’s in my mind, but I’m not making new discoveries about it,” she said. On the contrary, Schneider is perhaps entering a more pastoral (if not less serious) period, such as that which reached its apotheosis with the Grammy prize. Thompson Fields. This album is inspired by his childhood on a farm in Minnesota.
She is working on “The Great Potoo”, a piece about a bird she met on a trip to Brazil. Although birds have been a longtime interest, she says, she had no idea they would return as an artistic inspiration when she came up with the central motif for the piece. Yet, “After 15 years of not thinking about the potoo too much, something in my head said, ‘Look up the potoo on the internet. Remember that bird. When I saw it, I said, ” Oh my god, that’s what this room is.”
The bird emitted a piercing sound which, in its mimicry, appeared as something between a cry and a cry. The sound will go to trombone, she said, when she finishes adapting the work from a commission she once did for a band at the Eastman School of Music, where she graduated a master’s degree in 1985.
Other bird-related pieces also seep into her mind, she said, all of which could eventually coalesce into a theme for an album. But such thoughts are premature. Although she hoped to have “The Great Potoo” in shape for this year’s Newport Jazz Festival, the band will continue to make up for lost time playing music from Data Lords.
Wherever her writing takes her, she says, she’s happy with the band’s direction.
“I have a new optimism that it’s kind of good to appreciate where it’s going and not feel it’s bad too, because we lost Frank. Frank would like it. That’s where we It’s a very good place to be – a very complex dynamic. comics
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