At WSJ on Data Lords, the superb new disc from the Maria Schneider Orchestra

‘Data Lords’ Review: On Gigabytes and Garden Sights

Maria Schneider leads a big band on a two-disc release that explores the dominance of the digital world and the quest to preserve natural space.

Maria SchneiderPHOTO: BRIENE LERMITTE

By Martin JohnsonAug. 3, 2020 4:01 pm ET

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In 2015 Maria Schneider won Grammy Awards for two contrasting recordings. One was for “The Thompson Fields” (ArtistShare), an album by her orchestra, which has been her primary band since the early ’90s. The music was serene and richly evocative of rolling hills and tranquil fields; it was inspired by a visit to her native Minnesota. The other was for her arrangement of David Bowie’s “Sue (or in a Season of Crime),” a dark, ominous piece that suggested a dystopian urban future. On her new recording, “Data Lords” (ArtistShare), she expands and develops both sounds.

“Data Lords” is a two-disc set, and its themes explore the dominance of the digital world and the quest to preserve natural space, subjects that have rarely—if ever—received such an in-depth exploration in big-band jazz.

The first disc, “The Digital World,” features five compositions whose tension builds steadily. Long keening lines from guitarist Ben Monder and a lengthy, pointed solo by saxophonist Rich Perry highlight “A World Lost,” the first track, and the orchestral backing, especially drummer Johnathan Blake, conveys anxiety. This narrative builds further on “Don’t Be Evil,” a mocking of Google’s former motto; Mr. Monder, trombonist Ryan Keberle and pianist Frank Kimbrough intensify the sense of dread with stellar solos. On “CQ CQ Is Anybody There?” the rhythms are all taken from Morse code, and the solos by saxophonist Donny McCaslin and trumpeter Greg Gisbert (playing an electrified horn) evoke the sound of human call and digital response. The title track closes disc one and brings matters to a furious climax inspired by Stephen Hawking’s chilling claim that “the development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race.”

In the recording’s press release, Ms. Schneider discusses the need to disconnect from the demands of her technological devices and return to her natural sources of inspiration. Disc two, “Our Natural World,” is a celebration of those settings. “Sanzenin” depicts the quiet gardens of the Sanzen-in Temple north of Kyoto, which is more than eight centuries old, and it features a stellar accordion solo by Gary Versace. “Stone Song” takes cues from the whimsical pottery of Jack Troy, and features an intimate presentation of the orchestra—a soprano saxophone lead and solo from Steve Wilson and accompaniment from just four bandmates for most of the piece. The full orchestra is featured on the remaining four tracks, two of which build on the poetry of Pulitzer Prize winner Ted Kooser, whose verse often focuses on the Great Plains. Another, “Bluebird,” reflects Ms. Schneider’s passion for birding.

Ms. Schneider, who is 59 years old, was born in Windom, Minn., and attended the University of Minnesota. She earned a master’s degree from the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y., before moving to New York City in 1985. There she apprenticed with the great bandleader Gil Evans and studied with the renowned arranger Bob Brookmeyer.

Since its debut recording, “Evanescence” (Enja), in 1994, her orchestra has honed a distinctive and innovative sound. In contrast to other big bands of the era that showcased blaring horn sections, her music was highlighted by unusual harmonies and lightness. Instead of bringing to mind swing dancers, her band conjured images of ballerinas.

Secret Society bandleader Darcy James Argue has said of Ms. Schneider’s work, “There is no question that Maria has, virtually single-handedly, changed the way people think about large jazz ensembles—what they’re capable of, their place in the culture, everything.” Other acolytes include Miho Hazama and M_Unit; Brian Krock and Big Heart Machine; and the Anna Webber/Angela Morris Big Band. In addition to her jazz Grammys, she won one for Best Contemporary Classical Composition for her 2013 release “Winter Morning Walks” (ArtistShare), a collaboration with soprano Dawn Upshaw.

Half of the members of the 18-piece orchestra on “Data Lords” have played with Ms. Schneider since the early ’90s, and most of the others have logged fifteen years or more with the band. This unusual loyalty enables her to write specifically for her musicians and tailor the tunes to their strengths. Ten years ago, Mr. Kimbrough, who has played with Ms. Schneider for more than two decades, cited the quality of her music and the generosity of her spirit as the root of her musicians’ loyalty. He added, “I think a critic put it best a few years ago when he said that the band played as though each of us would take a bullet for her.… It’s a funny thought, but not too far from the truth.”

—Mr. Johnson writes about jazz for the Journal.

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At WSJ on Joshua Redman’s MoodSwing Revival

‘RoundAgain’ by Joshua Redman Review: Playing Through Jazz’s Changes

Brad Mehldau, Christian McBride and Brian Blade join the saxophonist on the four musicians’ first record together since 1994.

Joshua Redman Quartet

PHOTO: MICHAEL WILSON

All-star recordings, once a staple of jazz, have become rare, which is part of what makes “RoundAgain” (Nonesuch), the new release from saxophonist Joshua Redman, noteworthy. The album’s drummer, Brian Blade; bassist, Christian McBride; and pianist, Brad Mehldau, are esteemed bandleaders in their own right, and they were Mr. Redman’s group on his 1994 recording, “MoodSwing.” “RoundAgain” lets us measure the growth of each performer, as well as the changes in jazz over the past quarter-century.

A youth movement in the ’80s and early ’90s propelled such stylish, clean-cut musicians as pianist Geri Allen, trumpeter Terence Blanchard, saxophonist Kenny Garrett and the brothers Marsalis to jazz fame. Mr. Redman—who briefly modeled for DKNY—fit that paradigm, but his backstory was unusual. While his father, Dewey, was a stellar composer and saxophonist, Joshua, a Harvard graduate, had been scheduled to enter Yale Law School. But he took a gap year to hang out in New York and play jazz. An exceptional musician, during his year in Gotham he won the 1991 Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz Saxophone Competition, abandoned his plans for Yale, and pursued the family business.

“MoodSwing,” Mr. Redman’s third recording, arrived as trends in jazz were shifting. Veteran players like pianist Kenny Barron, bassist Dave Holland and vocalist Abbey Lincoln were putting out era-defining statements. Mr. Redman’s group had a swagger that was unusual from such young players, all then in their early or mid-20s, and the repertoire confidently tackled tunes from many different styles of jazz.

“RoundAgain” is billed to all four musicians, and the band functions more as a collective. All four men contributed to the set list; frontline and backline responsibilities shift seamlessly between them. The two tracks that bookend the 45-minute program—Mr. Redman’s “Undertow” and Mr. Blade’s “Your Part to Play”—demonstrate the difference between recent and ’90s jazz. Both pieces are as complex as a chablis; they begin at a gentle tempo and draw the listener in. On “Undertow,” Mr. Mehldau provides a foundation of soft piano chords for Messrs. Redman and Blade’s introspective musings. “Your Part to Play” begins with a contemplative bass introduction from Mr. McBride, which is followed by lead lines from Messrs. Redman and Mehldau with shimmering cymbal support from Mr. Blade.

Crisp and upbeat, the middle five tracks offer a telling contrast to the quartet’s earlier recording. “MoodSwing” was the sound of four young musicians asserting that they belonged. Now all are longtime residents of jazz’s top tier, and there is a sense of old friends reconnecting and picking up conversational threads from years ago. For instance, on Mr. Mehldau’s “Moe Honk” the piano and saxophone are in the lead when the tempo changes from a shuffle to more of a bebop burner, and Mr. Blade adds flourishes typical of that era. It recalls the Mehldau and Redman version of the Charlie Parker classic “Ornithology” from their 2016 release, “Nearness.”

On other songs, the four step outside of their accustomed sounds. In his own bands, Mr. Mehldau is known for an austere elegance. But on Mr. McBride’s jaunty “Floppy Diss,” he provides gospel-inflected chords and soul-drenched support and solos. Similarly, elsewhere on the recording, Mr. Blade, one of the more nuanced and cerebral drummers, thrashes around behind Mr. Redman’s solos.

Saxophonist Joshua Redman

PHOTO: BERND THISSEN/DPA/ZUMA PRESS

Assertive and bold, Mr. Redman’s saxophone style continues to display its cornerstone influences: the angularity of Wayne Shorter; the soulful aggression of Dexter Gordon; the melodic sensibility of Sonny Rollins; and, of course, his father’s cagey reserve. His discography zigzags between projects with his working band (drummer Gregory Hutchinson, bassist Reuben Rogers and various others) and those that look back at other eras. “RoundAgain” is free of the nostalgia that informs many all-star reunion concerts and albums. Instead, it is as if a working band reconvened after an unusually long absence, often reigniting what made the first time so successful. Before the pandemic, the group had been scheduled to tour extensively following the release of “RoundAgain.” Ideally, those shows can be rescheduled; it’s rare for a band that last played together 25 years ago to find contemporary relevance with such ease.

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Meanwhile…. My Words at Other Venues

I enthusiastically post my Wall Street Journal work here as soon as I am able (30 days after it posts behind the WSJ paywall).  I’m a little slower to highlight other stuff that I write here.  In the name of doing some catching up here are a few links.

At The Geoffrey Owens Experience, my blog about life and downward mobility in middle age (not quite my 2018-2020 take on Down and Out in Paris and London but close) I wrote a three part series about the harrowing early days of the pandemic while working in a fancy NYC grocery store (no, not Whole Foods or Trader Joes, but close) and the anxieties of awaiting a COVID test result.

This is episode 28, the third part and it contains links to the other two.

At The Gender Dtox Chronicles, my blog about why men should embrace rather than resist their inner goddess (hey, I grew up among amazing strong women and was always coached to emulate them, which definitely put a different spin on the “wearing the pants” paradigm) I wrote the first of a series called Supersheroes on Rhyanna Watson, an amazing athlete, yoga teacher and life coach.  A secondary theme, and a regular topic of the blog is how we need to stop reflexively sexualizing women’s bodies.  See them as heirs to the grandeur of Michelangelo’s David rather the latest in a wave of pin ups (and we need to see those women with greater depth too, but that’s a post for another time).

I did do some writing for pay too.

This piece for Wine Enthusiast, explains the grit and resolve of craft brewers during the pandemic

This piece for NPR remembers trumpet great Eddie Gale

Hence the illustration below.

trumpet

The trumpeter Eddie Gale, who worked with the likes of Sun Ra and Cecil Taylor, passed away on July 10 at the age of 78.

Martin Johnson is a freelance writer whose work on music, sports and culture has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Newsday, New York, Vogue, Rolling Stone, The Root, Slate, The Atlantic, and numerous other publications and websites. He also blogs at Rotations, and he can be contacted at thejoyofcheese@gmail.com.

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At WSJ on Aaron Parks and the duo of Walter Smith and Matthew Stevens: Jazz Comfort Food

‘Little Big II: Dreams of a Mechanical Man’ and ‘In Common 2’ Reviews: Jazz’s Take on Comfort Food

Tasty new releases from pianist Aaron Parks and the duo of saxophonist Walter Smith III and guitarist Matthew Stevens are approachable records with familiar song-form structures and straightforward solos.

Pianist Aaron Parks

PHOTO: ANTONIO PORCAR CANO

 

The new recordings by pianist Aaron Parks and the duo of saxophonist Walter Smith III and guitarist Matthew Stevens couldn’t have come at a better time. In contrast to many jazz recordings, their music is easy to listen to, with familiar song-form structures and straightforward solos. The immediate familiarity makes the two albums a sort of jazz comfort food, or the equivalent of the freshly baked bread that seems to be the new hobby of many who are sheltering at home.

Both recordings are also the second releases of recent projects by these bands, but they arrive at their common ground from different angles. Mr. Parks’s “Little Big II: Dreams of a Mechanical Man” (Ropeadope, out now) aims for a more groove-oriented approach. Messrs. Smith and Stevens’s “In Common 2” (Whirlwind, May 15 release) strives to continue the short melodic statements and concise improvisations found on 2018’s “In Common.”

For the first iteration of their project, Messrs. Smith and Stevens assembled several of their close colleagues, drummer Marcus Gilmore, bassist Harish Raghavan and vibraphonist Joel Ross. The band performed what Mr. Smith called “One Page Songs”—simple forms that enabled its members to dive in with ease. He and Mr. Stevens liked the result of that recording, so they took a similar approach this time, though they assembled a different rhythm section: bassist Linda May Han Oh, drummer Nate Smith and pianist Micah Thomas. To emphasize that this is a continuation of the previous recording, they reused the photo from the first one but digitally pasted the heads of Ms. Oh, Nate Smith and Mr. Thomas onto the bodies of their predecessors.

The 10-song, 39-minute program begins with a cover of “Roy Allan, ” composed by the trumpeter Roy Hargrove, whom the leaders idolize. The track is pared down to a one-minute duet that contrasts warm saxophone playing with pithy guitar work, each mood an aspect of Hargrove’s musical personality. Other highlights include the driving “Lotto,” built around puckish lines from Mr. Stevens, and featuring stellar support from each member of the rhythm section and another duet between the leaders. The reflective “Clem” is based on the narrative of the character from the video game “The Walking Dead,” and it features a plaintive sax solo. Two of Mr. Stevens’s tunes evoke his Canadian upbringing: “Cowboy” has a wide-open feel, as if it takes place on an Alberta highway, while “Provinces” is more intimate, as if heard in a Toronto café. The loose-limbed, easygoing sound and high-caliber playing give “In Common 2” the air of such classic Blue Note recordings from the ’50s and ’60s as Sonny Clark’s “Cool Struttin’” and Lee Morgan’s “The Rumproller.”

The name of Mr. Park’s group, Little Big, is apt. The band often has a broad atmospheric sound that seems to owe more to Radiohead’s turn-of-the-century recordings than Miles Davis’s 1970 classic, “Bitches Brew.” But the group has a discreet, interior side too. The new recording was done after two years of touring behind its predecessor, which gives the band a high degree of rapport and collective intuition that is evident on this release.

For instance, two of the tracks by the quartet—“Is Anything Okay?” and “Where Now?”—began as ensemble improvisations in the studio. The 71-minute program begins with “Attention, Earthlings,” a track launched by a stuttering backbeat from drummer Tommy Crane that yields to interweaving play between Mr. Parks and guitarist Greg Tuohey and gentle insistence from bassist David “DJ” Ginyard. Mr. Parks says, in the press materials, that the music was in response to contentious times. “It’s all too easy for our hearts to become overwhelmed and hardened,” he notes. The album has a soothing but multifaceted tone.

Mr. Parks has been a first-call sideman for over a decade and made landmark recordings with Terence Blanchard, Terri Lyne Carrington and Kurt Rosenwinkel. With its keyboard-guitar frontline, Little Big is part of a lineage that includes the music of Mr. Rosenwinkel as well as that of other guitarists like Julian Lage, Mike Moreno and Pat Metheny. Coincidentally, Mr. Parks also played on Walter Smith’s debut, “Casually Introducing” (Fresh Sound, 2005).

Mr. Parks is 36 years old, Mr. Stevens is 38 and Walter Smith is 39. They all emerged on the jazz scene after the vituperative civil war of the ’90s between traditionalists and innovators, and it’s easy to hear in their music the benefits of that conflict’s end. A wide range of influences arrive unself-consciously in the music on these recordings, and both the leaders and their sidepeople are blending them into interesting amalgams that sound perfectly natural and very timely.

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At WSJ on Liberty Ellman’s Last Desert

‘Last Desert’ by Liberty Ellman Review: Moving Out of His Own Shadow

The new album from the jazz guitarist might be even more influential than his 2015 record ‘Radiate.’

Jazz guitarist Liberty Ellman

PHOTO: ALAN NAHIGIAN

With Liberty Ellman’s stellar 2015 recording “Radiate” (Pi Recordings), the guitarist moved out of the long shadow of the illustrious musicians for whom he had been a sideman—most notably composer and reedman Henry Threadgill, a colleague for almost two decades. On Mr. Ellman’s new release, “Last Desert” (Pi Recordings), he begins to escape his own shadow—the one cast by “Radiate.”

Mr. Ellman’s album from five years ago was one of the best of the decade. Working with a unique sextet that included bassist Stephan Crump, tubaist Jose Davila, trumpeter Jonathan Finlayson, saxophonist Steve Lehman, and drummer Damion Reid—each a virtuoso—Mr. Ellman offered music of great intricacy and rhythmic innovation. The connection to Mr. Threadgill’s band Zooid was reinforced by the presence of Mr. Davila, whose work is a distinctive part of that group. “Last Desert” features the same unit found on its predecessor, but the guitarist’s compositions are deeper and more complex, and the solos stand out more.

The 45-minute program begins with “The Sip,” an elegantly ruminative piece that features impressive solos by the leader and each of the horn players. It is followed by the title track, which was inspired by the annual “4 Deserts” ultramarathon that is scheduled to take place this year across grueling terrain in Mongolia, Georgia, Chile, Namibia and Antarctica. In the press materials that accompany the recording, Mr. Ellman said of the event, “there is something profound about the idea that these athletes have the will to compete in the most severe environments on earth.” He continued, “our species needs people with that level of tenacity to lead the way toward the future.”

The composition is presented in two sections. The first begins with a gentle trumpet introduction that establishes the tone for the piece; it gives way to a tuba-drums duet that is followed by a bass and guitar segment, before the rest of the ensemble re-enters, and concludes with a guitar solo. For all of the hypermodernity of Mr. Ellman’s composing, his solo style on this track and elsewhere on the recording is a throwback; his pristine tone and clear melodic lines would fit easily into a recording from the ’50s or ’60s. Mr. Finlayson follows with softly probing solos that also feel rooted in an earlier era, the ’70s and ’80s. The second part begins more insistently with a gritty saxophone solo by Mr. Lehman backed by propulsive drumming from Mr. Reid. This gives way to an unaccompanied solo by Mr. Davila, then Messrs. Ellman and Finlayson re-enter and drive the tune to its conclusion.

Other highlights include “Rubber Flowers,” the most up-tempo song on the recording. The solos are concise and forceful, and they are propelled by a furious cascade of rhythms from Mr. Reid. “Doppler,” a bouncy piece toward the end, encapsulates some of Mr. Ellman’s compositional brilliance. The horns begin the piece with crisp, staccato lines that accent the percussion and tuba; this builds tension that resolves with a lyrical solo by Mr. Finlayson. These are followed in rapid succession by short statements from Mr. Finlayson, Mr. Lehman and Mr. Ellman that move the music forward. Despite the complex, chamber feel of Mr. Ellman’s tunes, they are a showcase for the impressive skills of the individual members of his band.

Mr. Ellman is 48 years old and grew up in New York and the Bay Area. Besides Mr. Threadgill, he was influenced by his work with the innovative saxophonist and composer Steve Coleman, who also favors highly elastic rhythms. Mr. Ellman’s music embodies many of the defining trends in jazz today. His compositions are ambitious; he blurs the boundaries between frontline and rhythm responsibilities, the solos rarely return to a theme but push the songs into new sonic ground, and the improvisations often announce a lineage.

Most musicians build their craft through jam sessions where their peers advertise their prowess with extended solos on a familiar tune, and the trend toward more thoroughly composed chamber jazz where solos are far shorter represents a sort of polar opposite. But Mr. Ellman’s work here strikes a different balance. It’s far from a blowing session, but his band members get more space than usual.

“Last Desert” doesn’t fully escape the shadow of “Radiate” as much as it presents a new level of growth for a superb band. “Radiate” defined a wing of jazz in 2015. It’s entirely possible that five years from now, the same will be said about “Last Desert.”

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At WSJ on Jazz Livestreams

This was a quick and dirty rundown done in response to the early days of the pandemic.

The Staying Inside Guide: Taking Improvisation to a Whole New Level

Livestreamed concerts by jazz musicians reinvent the typical performance for times of lockdown.

By Martin Johnson

April 11, 2020 7:00 am ET

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Fred Hersch

PHOTO: MARTIN ZEMAN

Early in the afternoon of April 10, pianist Fred Hersch sat down at his keyboard and dove into the Rodgers and Hammerstein classic “This Nearly Was Mine.” The tune from “South Pacific” is a great match for Mr. Hersch, a venerated musician known for his austere elegance. He captured the wistful mood of the piece and in his improvisations he hinted at more complex emotions before resolving it with a hopeful flourish.

In a move that gives new meaning to the word “improvisation,” Mr. Hersch is one of many leading jazz performers who have responded to the closing of clubs and other venues by turning their living spaces into performance venues. Many of these livestreamed performances typically occur on Facebook Live (where an account is not a prerequisite for viewing), while others can be seen on Instagram, YouTube or on specially created platforms. In addition, presenting organizations are responding to the situation by curating series of their archived performances, and some upstart organizations have begun sponsoring festivals of musicians playing in safe spaces and intimate settings, all of them making honey-sweetened, mint-garnished lemonade out of lemons.

Cecile McLorin Salvant

PHOTO: JAVIER ETXEZARRETA/EPA-EFE/REX/S/EPA/SHUTTERSTOCK

Mr. Douglas and Ms. Younger were participants in “Live From Our Living Rooms,” a weeklong series that concluded April 7 and featured luminaries like guitarist Bill Frisell and pianist Chick Corea and such fellow up-and-comers as vocalist/guitarist Becca Stevens and the duo of bassist Linda May Han Oh and pianist Fabian Almazan. The site, which describes itself as “an online music festival and fundraiser” was put together by three musicians—Thana Alexa, Owen Broder and Sirintip—and the nonprofit organization MusicTalks with the aim of providing financial support to unemployed musicians.

Linda May Han Oh

PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES

The festival’s 23 concerts and five workshops will be archived at the site though April 15 and warrant investigation. Ms. Oh and Mr. Almazan’s joint performance was dazzling. They are married to one another, and here the setting offered new insights into them as artists. Rhythms and tempos shifted on a dime; there was a familiarity with complex material and, of course, with each other’s tendencies, all of which gave you an immediate sense that they must often jam together at home. Mr. Frisell performed a solo set that alternated between scruffy, edgy sounds and tender ones; the set list was highlighted by a poignant rendition of “New York, New York” and closed with “We Shall Overcome.”

Organizations big and small have also jumped into the fray. Jazz at Lincoln Center is updating its YouTube channel—often posting concerts, panels and educational programming. And its blog offers a comprehensive listing of daily jazz livestreams. SFJazz has begun a series of archived shows called “Fridays at Five,” where for $5 viewers can watch four concerts from recent seasons. The Jazz Gallery has begun a series of online programming that includes Zoom chats with musicians, archived shows and interviews.

Brandee Younger

PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES

Not all of these online performances are solos and duos. Veteran saxophonist Chad Lefkowitz-Brown has, by adapting cinema’s split-screen aesthetic to the virtual world to feature groups of musicians and sometimes the whole band onscreen at once, created a virtual big band with 18 musicians and posted the number “Easy to Love” on his YouTube channel. That Cole Porter evergreen radiates new vibrancy in a flashy arrangement by Steven Feifke. And Mr. Brown, in his video edits, captures the momentum of the performance, showcasing each horn section and solo with breathtaking ease. Mr. Brown and Mr. Feifke are working on an arrangement of “Giant Steps” for this ensemble.

Many of these performances have rougher edges than concert hall appearances. Most of these musicians are well accustomed to walking onstage in front of large crowds. Clicking a button on their phone to begin a show and hearing no response from an audience must be jarring to them. But without exception, a groove is found within a tune or two. It’s as if the daily rushes become the director’s cut in minutes.

There’s an emerging subgenre building. Perhaps several years from now, enterprising labels will offer the complete livestreams of various artists to capture the time when we all sheltered at home and concert halls and jazz clubs were shuttered.

—Mr. Johnson writes about jazz for the Journal.