Maria Schneider kicked off her heels within the first few minutes of the early set at Birdland on Tuesday night. I mean literally, as in: she conducted her band barefoot. This small, seemingly extraneous detail struck me as noteworthy, though I thought twice about commenting on it, for fear of dredging up some bad associations, or seeming unduly focused on Schneider’s image, rather than her music.
Here’s the thing: the notion of conducting barefoot is emblematic of Schneider’s modus operandi as a bandleader. Much has been made of the flowing, intuitive feeling of her music, a feeling that tends to get coded (by critics and, I suspect, no less by audiences) as somehow essentially female. That’s hogwash, of course, but it shouldn’t preclude talk of intuition -- and yes, even comfort -- in Schneider’s work. Her compositions reflect a deeply analytical perspective, but they’re always mediated by discernable human emotion. That’s a rare gift of communication, shared by few composers in jazz, and the only reason it gets gendered in conversations about Schneider is, well, her gender.
I hadn’t intended on approaching Schneider’s Birdland run from the angle of “women in music,” which both honors and reduces her art. What brought me to that angle here was a worthy feature currently underway at NPR. For the record, I believe the Maria Schneider Orchestra to be our best large jazz ensemble, period. (This is hardly a minority opinion.) It occurred to me, halfway through Tuesday’s set, that the MSO also fits the bill of an excellent prog-rock band.
I can’t remember which piece prompted that half-serious analogy: was it “Aires de Lando,” which had Gonzalo Grau as a featured guest on cajón? Maybe it was Schneider’s spring commission, “Lembrança,” dedicated to the memory of Brazilian composer Paulo Moura. (The title of this post alludes to the ascendant power of Latin rhythm in her work, which remains the case, magnificently so.)
“Lembrança” had its world premiere here -- Schneider made a point of thanking several of her commissioners in attendance, along with Brian Camelio of ArtistShare -- and it sounded wonderfully complex, if not quite broken in. (I believe Ben Ratliff is reviewing the MSO a little later this week; presumably the piece will be even better by then. Stay tuned.)
Speaking of breaking things in: on my way out I ran into pianist Frank Kimbrough, who confirmed something for me. This set included several chestnuts of the Schneider repertoire, including “Evanescence” and “Gumba Blue.” Had there been any rehearsal of those pieces? Nope -- they’re just part of the collective memory of the band. That they were impeccably played is as much a testament to Schneider’s clarity and authority as a leader as it is a reflection of the high musical standard within her ranks.
That standard really can’t be overstated, though, and so I thought I’d end here with the briefest appreciation of an unsung hero, bass trombonist George Flynn. Maybe it was where I was seated -- the photo at the top of this post gives you some idea -- but I was especially struck by his contribution to these arrangements, the way he anchored so many of the ensemble voicings, with heavy bark and bite. Every now and then his part had him blasting a deep, brackish whole note that rattled my head. It called to mind a devilish presentation by my northern colleague J.D. Considine, at the EMP Pop Conference this spring. Anyway, there was nothing remotely “feminine” about the music Flynn was making. Footwear aside, his parts were made for ass-kicking. Hey, wait: MSO as metal? Maybe J.D. can weigh in below.