“Let’s lift the bandstand,” Thelonious Monk used to tell his musicians. With the possible exception of Wayne Shorter, I’m not sure there’s another musician in contemporary jazz who embodies the spirit of off-the-ground music more than composer Maria Schneider. Her extraordinary 18-piece orchestra made its Detroit debut this afternoon at the Detroit International Jazz Festival under sunny skies and blessedly warmer temperatures than Saturday.
Schneider, who conducted with balletic but precise gestures, takes a great deal of inspiration from the atmosphere, wind and all things avian. “Hang Gliding,” one of the most impressive pieces today, hovered in an 11-beat meter, the irregular accents lifting the ensemble as if the players were caught in a cycle of rising thermals. Even on pieces based on earthier rhythms like a tango or a funky boogaloo, her ensemble phrasing inhabited a contrasting sphere of expression and left the impression of a band walking on air.
Schneider likes vamps, modal suspensions, rubato, pastel colors, malleable forms, Spanish and Latin rhythms and gleaming, impressionistic harmonies. Her inventive orchestrations favor surprising blends of muted brass, flugel horns, flutes, clarinets, bass clarinet, guitar and accordion. A piece like “Concert in the Garden” took a small amount of thematic material and developed it with symphonic complexity; textures morphed organically, foreground and background danced in constant motion and the improvising soloists were deployed in concerto-fashion to further the implications of the written material.
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