Maria Schneider: Fighting power

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Of Maria Schneider’s many stories, “Data Lords” might be the most epic. The title track for the 2021 album of the year DownBeat Critics Poll evokes imagery of a sonic dystopia in which alto saxophonist Dave Pietro – “the human voice” as he put it in a phone interview – attempts to thwart a takeover by the evil forces of technology, played by the rest of the Maria Schneider Orchestra.

Prieto takes his case to the enemy in a raga-based solo that turns from a strategy of prayerful conciliation to one of passionate confrontation. But eight minutes after the start of the track, the story takes a disturbing turn. The orchestra moves from the background to the foreground, enveloping Pietro, and, with a series of explosions, announces that the takeover has begun.

“It’s like a pounding, like a jackhammer of intensity coming from the data lords, that crushing blow,” explained an animated Schneider during a May Zoom session, his fists rhythmically pounding the air as if she led the orchestra to deliver the deadly digital hammer blows. “Bum bum bum-bum-bum-bum bum. ”

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Despite the cinematic nature of Schneider’s musical imagination, she barely provides popcorn. She has been tireless in challenging the power of big data companies, not least for their perpetuation of what she passionately supports as unfair revenue practices and copyright abuse. And it has done it in Congress, in the media and in the courts.

In a 400-word email to DownBeat, she also criticizes flattering politicians. An excerpt: “When the data lords refuse to make their algorithms transparent, use sensitive information about us, and reinforce any changes that might reverse that, are they showing their liberal values?” I don’t think so. So why are our liberal lawmakers protecting them and even appointing big tech flying apes to our most important government positions, like our president is doing right now with antitrust? ”

While this kind of militant rhetoric may ruffle some feathers, its expression through Schneider’s art has been widely acclaimed. In addition to Data lords‘Victory in the Critics Poll, she has this year notched victories in the survey categories of Composer, Arranger and Big Band. The album also won two Grammy Awards, giving it a total of seven.

But despite all the seriousness of her goal and her critical success, she has retained a quality of lightness in her personal approach to music and life. As dense as the sounds on Data lords to become, their intention remains transparent. The same goes for his willingness to recognize a pure sense of catharsis in the making of this album.

“After all the letters I wrote and all that stuff,” she said, “let him go out and have some fun and be able to put him to music – it was like, ‘Yeah!’

Fun, of course, has been hard to come by during the pandemic. The album was released in July 2020 and, with concerts canceled, she used the time to refocus – clean up her archives, prepare reflective videos, and more. Much of this work has been done with an eye on his heritage. Schneider, who became NEA Jazz Master in 2019, turned 60 in November.

“I don’t want to leave a mess for someone else to fix it,” she said. “I know it sounds so morbid. Perhaps this is the result of the COVID year. We all start to contemplate our mortality a little bit.

That reality hit home on December 30, when Frank Kimbrough, the group’s pianist since playing at Visiones club in Greenwich Village in the 1990s, passed away suddenly. “I spent weeks and weeks crying,” Schneider said. “The qualities that Frank brought to the band and influenced my music in such a huge way were Frank’s love and appetite for risk taking, and his listening skills, and his generosity to everyone in the world. group, and his love of those times when no one knew where they were and felt everyone was listening to them – and doing something amazing with them.

Among the members of the group, the loss was keenly felt. “Frank was the heart of the group in so many ways,” said Pietro. “He was the first there and the last to go. He was everyone’s cheerleader. Similar sentiments were echoed by those, like famous soprano Dawn Upshaw, who knew Kimbrough for her involvement in Schneider’s rare projects outside of the context of the full group. “I was devastated,” she said.

Upshaw had enlisted Schneider, a classical chamber group and improvisation trio from the group – Kimbrough, bassist Jay Anderson and baritone saxophonist Scott Robinson – to Winter morning walks, a cycle of songs based on the poetry of Ted Kooser. The piece was first performed in 2011 with the Australian Chamber Orchestra and more recently in 2019 with members of the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra. Upshaw said the result confirmed his original feelings about Schneider’s gift of storytelling.

“She can really write a melody and, at the same time, I was really drawn to what I found was innovative contrapuntal writing in the medium she worked in, the jazz orchestra,” Upshaw said. “I had never heard this kind of imagination with such beauty. I began to dream of being able to sing his music.

Schneider was so happy with the song cycle that she adapted two tracks for Data lords: “Braided together” and “The sun waited for me”. Both appear on disc 2, Our natural world – the narrative inverse of Disc 1, The digital world, which ends with “Data Lords”.

“Tresse”, at just under four minutes, is the most succinct distillation of Schneider’s naturalistic instincts album. Its melody is simple yet idiosyncratic in the way it wraps around Kooser’s words, intensifying their image of a hugging couple: we braided together in sleep.

“It’s the kind of melody I never would have written if I hadn’t written it in poetry,” she said.

Schneider said she adapted the play with Pietro in mind. In turn, he researched the poem, published in 2000 under the title “December 29,” and eventually returned to his classical training to bring from the viola a delicacy of tone that reflects the intimacy of the words. .

“There is always a tendency to ‘play jazz’, he said. “But it’s more than just playing for changes. What is the story about? ”

This question, broadly defined, will be on Schneider’s mind in the months to come as she contemplates the next chapters of her musical life. An early adopter of fan funding with ArtistShare, she will lead a community eager to follow.

She said she hadn’t dialed during the pandemic, and it wasn’t clear in which direction her muse would take her when she finally put the pen to paper.

Will she tip the scales towards benign matters, as she did brilliantly on her last two albums, 2016’s Thompson’s Fields and 2013 Winter morning walks? The two won Grammy Awards and both allowed the Windom, Minnesota native to probe the pastoral aspect of her storytelling sensitivity.

Will she pursue other projects like Data lords? He recalls elements of his first albums, Evanescence (1994) and Future (1996), in which ogres of a different kind (“Dance You Monster To My Soft Song,” “Bombshelter Beast”) inhabit her psyche, though she was quick to point out that the Data Lords are real.

In those early days, she said: “I felt serious jazz had to sound serious. But that changed when she sat down with David Bowie to discuss their collaboration on what would become the Grammy-winning single “Sue (Or In A Season Of Crime).”

Bowie, she says, revealed to her the pleasures of representing evil. “I said, ‘What do you think this song will be about? He said, with a big smile on his face, “I don’t know – vampires?” I was really excited. It was kind of like, ‘Dark is fun.’ ”

Wherever her writing takes her, Schneider is inclined to continue discussing issues of performance directly with group members; the staff also change from time to time. By consensus, the piano chair will go to the orchestra’s longtime accordionist Gary Versace – a “magnificent pianist,” she said, who “knows the aesthetic of the band.”

But, as in any finely tuned organization, the collective dynamic of the group seems likely to change. Pietro, who has been with the band since the days of the Visiones, said: “I think we all wonder, ‘What will the band be like without Frank? I don’t think any of us know that.

The process of finding answers is scheduled to begin on September 4, when the band is expected to perform at the DC Jazz Festival. The concert will be his first in 18 months – the longest, Schneider said, that he has not performed. While players will no doubt support each other, she added, they likely won’t get a chance to rehearse ahead of time.

“It’s going to be painful in a way because of the Frank affair,” she said, her voice choking and her eyes clouding. “But it’s going to be pretty amazing to make music.” Comics


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