Maria Schneider strives to slay data dragons and earns two Grammies

Composer-arranger-bandleader Maria Schneider won two Grammy Awards for her album “Data Lords.” Courtesy the artsdesk.com

All praise Maria Schneider and her larger-than-life, intrepid orchestra! She just won two Grammy Awards for best instrumental composition (“Sputnik”) and best large ensemble recording, for Data Lords. Like a goddess sprouting heavy new wings, Schneider brilliantly ventured far beyond her comfort zone of nature-inspired jazz impressionism, in the Gil Evans tradition: Schneider Grammy announcement

Despite her clear and proud roots, Data Lords affirms her genius as a true original and her prominent place in jazz history. I never actually reviewed this album partly because I’ve given her so much blog and newspaper play over the years and I reviewed in-depth a live concert she performed while unveiling some of Data Lords material, before the album’s release.

Data Lords album cover

I chose Data Lords as my No. 2 album of the year in the NPR jazz critics poll largely because, to me, my top choice, Gregg August’s Dialogues on Race, was too urgently relevant in light of last year’s world-wide racial-justice protests. August’s large ensemble album also carried massive musical weight on its own.

But Schneider’s every statement now virtually demands critical attention, not unlike John Coltrane and Miles Davis, avatars of the post-bop era. Data Lords revealed the fire, indignation and backbone of the music’s leading composer-arranger, fully wielding her past mastery of scoring for jazz orchestra, like a woman warrior leading troops. And, yes, Delacroix’s famous romantic painting “Liberty Leading the People,” comes to mind. And no album had more great music in 2020 than hers. As an artist who records on a self-created label (ArtistShare) and distributes independently, 1 she’s not only a self-made artist but extremely attuned to the role of “data lords,” the gigantic online media companies (Google, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, etc.) that play a grossly outsize role in how we pursue and receive information on the Internet, and spend our money on cultural products or activity. In other words, Schneider asserts that they virtually lord over our lives because so many of us are now dominated by our involvement in online media.

The Grammy-winning composition “Sputnik” is part of the “protest” side of this two-CD recording, yet it retains the depth of textured and spiritual beauty that trademark her best work, while evoking a profound sense of angst and desolation. By nominally invoking a famous space travel vehicle, it suggests that we may need to travel to new realms far from “home” to regain truth, self-determination, sanity, freedom and societal-coherence – not overseen by the data lords. Here too, an allusion to the Underground Railroad and slavery hovers in the stratosphere. I suggest this not to equate the two, but to honor the cultural pervasiveness of that darkest chapter in this nation’s history.

Such elevated praise might indicate that this is The Maria Schneider Show with musician munchkins. But she chooses her world-class players with Ellingtonian acumen (here, among others, Donny McCaslin, Rich Perry, Steve Wilson, Scott Robinson, Ryan Keberle, Gary Versace, Ben Monder, and the late Frank Kimbrough) and gives them many extended spotlights, which helps expand this to two discs, and there’s hardly a moment of seeming filler.

And Schneider rewards listeners for the facing the sometimes-dissonant challenges of the first CD, “The Digital World,” by reminding us of what she is fighting for, in “Our Natural World,” the gloriously beautiful second disc. Another implication, in these juxtaposed titles, is that data lords’ dominance affects our overall priorities and collective consciousness, perhaps to the detriment of addressing climate change, and the perils to the natural world.

Great art like Schneider’s does its extraordinary work on its own terms, while reaching out to us, to some degree. The cultural covenant is completed when we respond as we will, which that art itself is not responsible for, and yet which reflects its sometimes-uncanny powers of evocation, provocation, and communication.

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  1. Thanks to Ann Braithwaite and her staff, of Braithwaite & Katz Communications for their superb, dedicated promotion of Schneider, and many other independent artists and labels over many years.

 

Saxophonist Adam Kolker travels in the long shadows of Wayne Shorter

Review: Adam Kolker Lost (Sunnyside)

It’s been a longtime coming, a tenor saxophonist doing justice to Wayne Shorter in an album statement. 1

Kolker embraces Shorter’s almost-mystical genius, beautiful yet elliptical, invariably evident even in his verbal pronouncements.

He traffics in his subject’s tone, manner and visionary values. And he lives up to Shorter’s ideal of originality superseding conventional or inherited aesthetics.

Yes, Coltrane’s astringent tone and passion dwell within Shorter and, by extension, Kolker. Yet Shorter made his own art as compelling and sublime as any preceding jazz. He did this partly by employing shadow and indirection, shapely asymmetry, and by allowing the fissures of ambiguity to open fresh roads to possibility and new definitions of beauty and truth. At times, Shorter can sound as confessional as he does otherworldly.

Adam Kolker, Courtesy Jazz Times

Kolker has learned well. There’s a certain bite to his well-honed tone. So the Lost album opens with ingenious obliquity, with not a Shorter piece, but Gil Evans’ “The Time of the Barracudas,” originally an orchestral vehicle for Shorter’s tenor.

Both Shorter tunes interpreted, “Lost” and “Dance Cadaverous,” are as disquieting as they are strangely engaging. The album’s chosen title, “Lost,”  feels wholly apt, as a tribute not to the man himself but to his long, winding road of quest, or The Way, a Buddhist concept of rather selfless enlightenment, long-embraced by Shorter. 2

(On the other hand, incorporating Shorter’s name into the title would’ve likely helped market the album to its intended audience.)

Though first conceived as an album of Shorter tunes, Kolker offers two of his own beguiling originals, which also betray formal qualities of Monk and Steve Lacy. Kolker also gives two standards, by Jimmy Van Husen and Bronislaw Kaper, Shorter-like re-imaginings.

Kolker has mastered for himself Shorter’s limpid aura of expressive intimacy, seeming to be whispering to you, the lone listener, in superbly burnished tones when he plays his saxophonists. On soprano, Kolker may have more restrained mastery than his elder’s model.

So, this album is far from musical hagiography, or the convention of a complete dedication album of an honoree’s repertoire.

A superb accompanying trio — pianist Bruce Barth, bassist Ugonna Okegwo and drummer Billy Hart — buoy the music like seamen expertly managing sails in tricky crosswinds. Shorter’s compositions and style are often as oddly tilted in the time/space continuum as they are nuanced.

If not quite a transformative work, Lost sets sail for a distant shore and gives us fresh lenses on Shorter’s still-too-little understood legacy. That Kolker accomplished an historical kind of perspective before Shorter’s passing testifies to this achievement.

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1. To date, the strongest acknowledgement of Shorter’s legacy as album statements have come arguably from pianists, as in the 1983 piano-duo album Shorter by Two, by Kirk Lightsey and Harold Danko. This may partly be due to Shorter’s own comparatively long career, always exemplifying the reach beyond, rather than glorifying the past.

Rickey Ford’s Shorter Ideas is also a worthy covering of Shorter’s compositions.

2 Shorter originally recorded “Lost” on his 1965 Blue Note album The Soothsayer. “Dance Cadaverous” is from Shorter’s 1964 Blue Note masterpiece Speak No Evil.