Maria Schneider

Sky Blue

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Maria Schneider ventures deeper than ever into herself for this project, in which four of the five compositions were commissions from various prestigious organizations. Jazz usually doesn't operate like this, but one suspects that in the increasingly hostile future, commissions may be the only way in which high-minded big-band music will be able to be written, much as in the classical field. The results are often beautiful, uncommercial, and quite inward, for Schneider has her own feelings for sonority, time and pulse, sometimes doing away with the latter altogether in the meditative cores of some of these pieces. The introduction for the autobiographical "The Pretty Road" imaginatively evokes the ethos of a short road trip toward a Midwestern small town -- Schneider's hometown, Windom, MN -- with Ingrid Jensen's gentle flugelhorn and Luciana Souza's vocalizing overlooking the homely texture. At one point toward the middle of the piece, everything stops, and Schneider just lets the orchestra drift in idealized memory, with blissful digital-delayed effects adding to the realization that this happened a long time ago. Pat Metheny would understand this music completely. "Aires de Lando" runs through abrupt changes in tempo, mood, and especially meter (the ramifications of the latter are too knotty to even contemplate in this space). The gorgeous "Rich's Piece" finds Rich Perry intoning meditatively on tenor sax as Schneider's orchestra plays in a soft-textured way that barely cloaks the dense harmonic writing. She learned very well how to write this way from the master, Gil Evans, but the sound is all her own, a feminine counterpart to Evans' edgier surfaces. In "Cerulean Skies," nearly 22 minutes long, members of the band imitate various species of birds (Schneider is a passionate bird watcher) and an actual feathered friend, a cerulean warbler, turns up on tape near the end of the piece. Again, Schneider stops the action for a meditative interlude midway before ambling onward. And Sky Blue closes out on a contemplative note, with soprano saxophonist Steve Wilson nimbly imitating birdsong near the close. This CD won the INDIE music awards for Best Jazz Album, was nominated in 2007 for a Grammy award as Best Large Jazz Ensemble Album, the track "Cerulean Skies" was nominated Best Instrumental Composition, and was declared a masterpiece by Downbeat Magazine.

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