Maria Schneider: Fight The Power

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Maria Schneider’s Data Lords was the critics’ pick for Album of the Year.

(Photo: Briene Lermitte)

Editor’s Note: This article was written to commemorate Maria Schneider’s CD Data Lords being named Album of the Year in DownBeat’s 69th Annual Critics Poll. She also won Composer, Arranger and Big Band of the Year honors. Results were published in the August 2021 issue.

Of Maria Schneider’s many stories, “Data Lords” might be the most epic. The title track of the 2021 DownBeat Critics Poll Album of the Year conjures the imagery of a sonic dystopia in which alto saxophonist Dave Pietro — “the human voice,” as he put it in a phone interview — tries to thwart a takeover by the malignant 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 moves from a strategy of prayerful conciliation to one of passionate confrontation. But eight minutes into the track, the story takes an ominous turn. The orchestra moves from background to foreground, enveloping Pietro, and, with a series of blasts, announces that the takeover has begun.

“It’s like a hammering down, like a jackhammer of intensity coming from the data lords, this crushing blow,” an animated Schneider explained in a May Zoom session, her fists rhythmically pounding the air as if she were directing the orchestra to deliver the deadly whacks of a digital hammer. “Bum bum bum-bum-bum-bum bum.”

Despite the cinematic nature of Schneider’s musical imagination, she is hardly purveying popcorn fare. She has been tireless in challenging the power of big-data companies, not least for their perpetuation of what she passionately argues are unfair revenue practices and copyright abuse. And she has done so before Congress, in the media and in the courts.

In a 400-word email to DownBeat, she also blasts pandering politicians. An excerpt: “When the data lords refuse to make their algorithms transparent, use sensitive information about us and strong-arm any changes that could reverse that, are they displaying their liberal values? Me thinks not. So why do our liberal lawmakers protect them and even appoint big tech’s flying monkeys into our most important governmental positions, like our president is doing right now with antitrust?”

While that kind of activist rhetoric might ruffle some feathers, its expression through Schneider’s art has garnered wide acclaim. In addition to Data Lords’ victory in the Critics Poll, she has this year notched wins in the poll’s categories of Composer, Arranger and Big Band. The album also won two Grammy awards, giving her a total of seven.

But for all Schneider’s seriousness of purpose and critical success, she has maintained a quality of lightness in her personal approach to both music and life. As dense as the sounds on Data Lords become, their intent remains transparent. So, too, does her willingness to acknowledge a sheer sense of catharsis in the making of this album.

“After all the letters I’ve written and all this stuff,” she said, “letting it out and having fun and being able to put it into music — it was like, ‘Yes!’”

Fun, of course, has been hard to come by during the pandemic. The album was released in July 2020, and, with gigs canceled, she has used the time to recenter — cleaning up her archive, preparing reflective videos and the like. Much of that work has been done with an eye on her legacy. Schneider, who became an NEA Jazz Master in 2019, turned 60 in November.

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

That reality hit home on Dec. 30, when Frank Kimbrough, the band’s pianist since it played the Greenwich Village club Visiones in the 1990s, suddenly died. “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 ability to listen, and his generosity toward everybody in the band, and his loving those moments where nobody knew where they were and feeling everybody listen — and making something incredible out of it.”

Among band members, the loss was keenly felt. “Frank was the heart of the band in many ways,” Pietro said. “He was the first one there and the last to leave. He was everybody’s cheerleader.” Similar sentiments were echoed by those, like famed soprano Dawn Upshaw, who knew Kimbrough from his involvement with Schneider’s rare projects outside the context of the full band. “I was devastated,” she said.

Upshaw had enlisted Schneider, a classical chamber group and an improvising trio drawn from the band — Kimbrough, bassist Jay Anderson and baritone saxophonist Scott Robinson — for Winter Morning Walks, a song cycle based on the poetry of Ted Kooser. The piece was performed first in 2011 with the Australian Chamber Orchestra and most recently in 2019 with members of the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra. Upshaw said the outcome had confirmed her original feelings about Schneider’s storytelling gift.

“She can really write a tune and, at the same time, I was really drawn to what I found was innovative contrapuntal writing within the medium she was working in, the jazz orchestra,” Upshaw said. “I hadn’t heard that kind of imagination with such beauty. I began dreaming about being able to sing her music.”

Schneider was so satisfied with the song cycle that she adapted two pieces from it 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 closes with “Data Lords.”

“Braided,” at just under four minutes, is the album’s most succinct distillation of Schneider’s naturalist instincts. Its melody is simple yet idiosyncratic in the way it wraps itself around Kooser’s words, intensifying their image of a couple entwined: “All night, in gusty winds/ The house has cupped its hands around/ The steady candle of our marriage/ The two of us braided together in sleep.”

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

Schneider said she adapted the piece with Pietro in mind. He, in turn, researched the poem, published in 2000 as “december 29,” and ultimately reached back to his classical training to coax from the alto a delicacy of tone that reflects the words’ intimacy.

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

That question, writ large, will be on Schneider’s mind in the coming months as she contemplates the next chapters in her musical life. An early adopter of fan-funding with ArtistShare, she will be leading a community eager to follow.

She said she had not been composing during the pandemic, and it was unclear in which direction her muse would take her when she finally put pen to paper.

Will she set the balance more toward benign subjects, as she did to brilliant effect on her last two albums, 2016’s The Thompson Fields and 2013’s Winter Morning Walks? Both won Grammy awards, and both allowed the Windom, Minnesota, native to plumb the pastoral aspect of her storytelling sensibility.

Will she pursue more projects like Data Lords? It does recall elements of her earliest albums, Evanescence (1994) and Coming About (1996), in which ogres of another sort (“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 had this feeling that 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 said, revealed to her the pleasures of portraying 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 questions of interpretation with band members directly; likewise, the odd personnel change. By consensus, the piano chair will go to the orchestra’s longtime accordionist, Gary Versace — a “magnificent piano player,” she said, who “knows the aesthetic of the band.”

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

The process of finding answers should begin on Sept. 4, when the band is slated to appear at the DC Jazz Festival. The gig will be its first in 18 months — the longest, Schneider said, that it had gone without performing. Though the players will no doubt support each other, she added, they will likely not have the chance to rehearse ahead of time.

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



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November 2021
Joey DeFrancesco
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