September 14, 2010

Schneider and Co. Perform a New Blend at Bailey

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Being able to transmit emotion through sound is no small task. Without the crutch of image or movement, our emotive qualities are slashed to a fraction of their possible powers. It stands to reason, then, that such sounds have the capacity to leave an indelible mark on the mind’s memory. I’d like to welcome the Maria Schneider Orchestra to that elusive and select club. The uninhibited passion that these musicians threw into their instruments was one of the more beautiful sounds I’ve heard on a stage. This past Sunday, Schneider rallied the troops and they descended en masse on Bailey Hall. Bailey is great for people-watching if you’re wise enough to snag a seat in the mezzanine, and the Orchestra drew a crowd split between students showing up for extra credit and hardened music-types eager to flex their ears. I counted three pairs of muttonchops and five great heads of hippie-hair before the lights went down.

Schneider established herself long ago as one of our great contemporary jazz composers, grabbing Grammys for Concert In The Garden and Cerulean Skies, her two most recent recordings. As for the woman behind the music, Ms. Schneider is an unassuming smiley blond raised in the yawning fields of Minnesota. Her casual and appreciative stance towards music makes her genius all the more genuine, as she spoke casually of inspirations from Brazilian samba to eco-friendly wetland farmers during the concert.

The few hundred who made it to Bailey saw a mostly male ensemble of 20-some musicians slide onstage, waddling or twitching towards their seats, uncomfortable without that tonal phantom limb. The Maria Schneider Orchestra advertises “orchestral jazz,” a title cloaked behind two sweeping genres. Jazz is an insanely complex genre of music, surviving and thriving off dissonance, off-beats and other musically defunct virtuosity that shines with a chaotic brilliance — but usually only in small groups, where the fleet-fingered can be picked apart note by note by an untrained ear. All doubts were cast aside, however, when the orchestra burned through “Concert In The Garden” to open the show. Schneider’s music alternates between dreamy, balletic conversation between piano, bass and accordion (yup!) that slowly give way to shivering metallic tremors from the rest of the band. Throughout the concert we were treated to swells of sound that seemed to melt over the audience as an untouched wave, the instruments’ individuality lost in the harmonic fusion of the orchestra.

It’s not the melodic progressions that define Schneider’s music as jazz — the chords could just as easily fit in the theatrical overture of a 1950s musical — rather, it’s the organization of sound within the group that really sells the orchestra. There was an unmistakable enthusiasm for the music between the musicians as they unsuccessfully tried to hold back grins while watching their peers rip the mic apart during solos. The slow walk of a soloist towards the microphone can be one fraught with either anxiety or anticipation, and I did not see one nervous Nelly the entire time. The first half of the show closed with “The Thompson Fields,” Schneider’s ode to a friend’s Minnesotan farmlands. The piece came in and out of its shell, always revealing a bit more of itself upon each return to the upper decibels. Musical titillation is a toughy to pull off, yet I swear I saw a wave of goosebumps pass through the audience as the final chords died out after a particularly bitchin’ accordion solo. Props to you, accordionist — accordioner — Gary Versace.

This marks the beginning of Bailey Hall’s year-long concert series. I encourage any and every one to catch at least one of these shows … if the Maria Schneider Orchestra was any sign of things to come, there’s a lot of perfection yet to pass through that stage.

Original Author: Graham Corrigan