Sky Blue by Dan McClenaghan
Maria Schneider says she takes great pleasure in making people sound their best. In an orchestral setting, nobody does it better. She proved that on Concert in the Garden (ArtistShare, 2004); and she raises the bar with Sky Blue. Schneider, like Duke Ellington before her, writes for her players, and on this disc she has incited seven adventurous and heart-stoppingly gorgeous solos from various long-term band members, wrapping each of their eloquent statements in the grandeur, the majestic ebb and flow of her twenty-piece ensemble.
It seemed impossible for Schneider to top her Grammy-winning Concert in the Garden, but she's done just that with Sky Blue. She has elevated her music to a seemingly impossible height. A sharp artistic focus has sharpened further, with four of the five compositions showcasing single soloists in front of the enveloping majesty of her unmatched orchestral choruses. In this, a parallel can be drawn not only to Ellington, but also to Gil Evans and his landmark Columbia albums with Miles Davis: Miles Ahead (1958) Porgy and Bess (1959) and Sketches of Spain (1960).
Always the story-teller, Schneider opens the set with “The 'Pretty' Road,” a sonic painting from a childhood memory of a path she and her family took from an out-of-town restaurant back to her home town of Windom, Minnesota. The sound leads, with the help of Ingrid Jensen's flugelhorn, to the crest of a gentle rise and a vista of sparkling lights, sparkling stars that burst to life with Jensen and her glowing electronic effects.
“Aires de Lando” features Scott Robinson's clarinet solo over the rhythmically-layered Peruvian lando. The sound—with cajons (Peruvian percussion “box” adopted by Spanish flamenco) and palmas (hand claps)—has an incredible warmth flowing beneath Robinson's clarinet. He begins in a rather sedate mode, before things evolve in the direction of searing, untamed beauty.
Schneider composed “Rich's Piece” with saxophonist Rich Perry, a Maria Schneider orchestra stalwart, in mind. The atmosphere is pensive, Perry going inward with a robust and measured tone in front of a waxing/waning orchestral backdrop.
The title tune was written for a close friend who passed as Schneider was writing the piece. It is a sound of unalloyed poignancy, featuring Steve Wilson's impossibly, achingly gorgeous turn on soprano sax, a sad yet hopeful work of art.
“Cerulean Skies” is the masterpiece within a masterpiece, a twenty-two minute tune inspired by Schneider's love of birds. It's a composition that takes an idea similar to Ellington's “Sunset and the Mockingbird” from The Queen's Suite (Pablo, 1959) and runs with it, giving flight to three different soloists—tenor saxophonist Donny McCaslin, accordionist Gary Versace (who creates a lilting sweetness in front of Frank Kimbrough's piano—that sounds like collected raindrops falling from a high canopy and bursting on a forest floor) and alto saxophonist Charles Pillow. The tune includes bird sounds created by various band members, and a snippet of a recording of a cerulean warbler, a bird that Schneider, in her birding rambles, has encountered in New York's Central Park.
Magnificent. A magical work of art, from beginning to end.
“Data Lords” . . . is her magnum opus, a riveting, remarkably intense double album, as profound as modern-day instrumental music gets. Link to article- MINNEAPOLIS STAR TRIBUNE – Jon Bream
Now it's finally here, in the form of a magnificent double album, Data Lords . . . it parses into thematic halves, "The Digital World" and, as an antidote, "The Natural World." On the whole and in the details, it amounts to the most daring work of Schneider's career, which sets the bar imposingly high. This is music of extravagant mastery, and it comes imbued with a spirit of risk. Link to article- NPR.com – Nate Chinen
“The Digital World” emerges as her manifesto against everything that limits the expressive range of the human spirit. “The Natural World” becomes a summarizing afterword in Schneider’s musical autobiography that illustrates the natural forces that keep her creative compass pointing true north. Link to article- The Arts Fuse –– Allen Michie
Data Lords: Schneider’s craft and judgment are such that music in the eerie, dystopian world has the marvellous feeling for structure, pacing and often sheer beauty that listeners who know Schneider’s music will be expecting. . . .
There are instrumental glories throughout this album, but the work of the low brass both as section and as individuals is quite unbelievable and is caught exceptionally well on the recording. Whereas Wagner once said “don’t look at the trombones, it only encourages them", I had the sense that Maria Schneider must keep looking at the trombones a lot. And they certainly deliver here. Link to article- TheArtsDesk.com – Sebastian Scotney
With Data Lords – a steeliness and even bleakness now shares a stage with her familiar pastoral side. . . . The inner tensions behind this compelling session promise a revealing new phase in Schneider's remarkable work. Link to article- THE GUARDIAN – John Fordham
Beyond the dualism in its format, Data Lords is a work of holistic creativity. The music of outrage and critique in the first album has all the emotion and conceptual integrity that the music of melancholy and reverence does in the second. I can’t conceive of anyone else creating this music, unless Delius has been writing with Bowie on the other side. Link to article- THE NATION – David Hajdu
Data Lords: Disc One offers highly imaginative, revelatory, at times breathtaking music as in the title track. . . . Expect this project, at a minimum, to be a Grammy contender with perhaps historic recognition in the wings at some point. Link to article
The Thompson Fields: “... this magnificent, nature-drunk masterpiece, one of the great jazz records period, not just one of the great recent jazz records.”- THE BUFFALO NEWS – Jeff Simon
Maria Schneider wanted to send a strong message about the threat of a mass manipulation of humanity with Data Lords. Through her high standard for meticulous composing and arranging, delivered by some of jazz’s best musicians, she gets the message across in perhaps the grandest way possible.- SomethingElseReviews.com – S. Victor Aaron
The Thompson Fields: ***** "...there is nobody more capable of harnessing emotions in music and projecting and preserving the beauty and power of the natural world in sound than Maria Schneider. She's demonstrated that time and again, and she does it once more on this awe-inspiring release."
The Thompson Fields: "This marriage of sounds, words and images is ultimately breathtaking, a testament not simply to the hipness of jazz but to the uplifting and sustaining powers of art."- OTTAWA CITIZEN – Peter Hum
"The Thompson Fields breaks through to a new level. It's her most ambitious recording, and her most accomplished; it places her in the pantheon of big-band composer-leaders, just below Ellington, Strayhorn, and Gil Evans at his very best; it's a masterpiece"- STEREOPHILE – Fred Kaplan
The Thompson Fields ***** (five stars) "Her latest album, some 10 years in the making, shows just what a supple and powerful instrument a jazz orchestra can be."- THE TELEGRAPH – Ivan Hewett
The Thompson Fields: ***** (five stars) "...a sound-world of rare eloquence ... the singularly most beautiful record I've heard this year."
"Maria Schneider is a national treasure."