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Soaring, not boring: Maria Schneider Jazz Orchestra.

PHOTO: Chris Shields

Big Band, Big Sound

By Shawn Stone

Maria Schneider Jazz Orchestra

Troy Savings Bank Music Hall, Feb. 9

This was a special night was for the devoted jazzers who turned out in the bone-chilling cold to experience the Maria Schneider Jazz Orchestra. The 17-piece band—18 counting Schneider, who conducts, but doesn’t play—warmed the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall with lushly complex sounds.

Schneider’s exquisitely textured arrangements have earned numerous critical plaudits and a Grammy (in 2005); her approach to the big band has provoked comparisons with Mingus, Ellington and her mentor, Gil Evans. Though the Evans influence was clear, and, at odd moments, the arrangements made me think of late Ellington, I’m not particularly competent to comment on the finer musical points of her influences; however, I can say that both the music, and the orchestra, were marvelously entertaining.

The opener, “Evanescence,” set the tone for the evening. After the whole band introduced the themes, a soloist was featured. In this case, it was Rich Perry on tenor sax, who played a hypnotic solo (while the rhythm section did their own thing). Then Tim Hagens, returning to the band after an 11-year interval, blew an impressive solo on muted trumpet, against, alternately, a wash of horns and alone. It was intriguing, atmospheric jazz.

Other highlights included “El Viento,” in which Marshall Gilkes’ trombone solo brought home the piece’s Brazilian influence. “Sky Blue,” which will be on the orchestra’s next CD, was melodic to the point of sweetness, and featured Steve Wilson’s rich, plaintive soprano sax solo. “Green Piece” gave Scott Robinson (who also plays with the 1920s-music ensemble Vince Giordano’s Nighthawks) a chance to shine on the monster that is the baritone sax, as well as giving pianist Frank Kimbrough his first (but not last) solo spot of the evening.

Schneider loved the hall, by the way. She noted that while many jazz groups might have a problem with the acoustically “live” sound of the Music Hall, she explained that it fit her orchestra’s sound perfectly.

Schneider likes to draw pictures with her music. She closed the evening with “Hang Gliding,” a representation of a hang-gliding flight she took in Brazil in the 1990s. (Her presong comments on the experience were on point, and funny.) It’s a majestic and—forgive me—soaring work. The introductory solos suggested the preflight and takeoff moments; a flugelhorn began quietly, getting more and more intense until Donny McCaslin, on tenor sax, took over. That was some feat: McCaslin had to come in at a frenzied musical and emotional peak, and go somewhere worthwhile. Which he did.

There was no encore, and no encore needed: Schneider and her band had made their point.

The Joker and the Straight Shooter

Josh Ritter, Stephen Kellogg

The Egg, Feb. 6

Stephen Kellogg, who opened for Josh Ritter, brings up a point about folk singers that I’ve been thinking about for some time—that is, the tendency for many of them to want to quit their day jobs for comedy. Perhaps it’s the idiom: These concerts can be very restrained, serious affairs, with the audience members sitting quietly out there in the dark. So a joke here and there between songs allows a little release. Or perhaps it breaks the tension and nervousness for the performer and allows him to make a connection with the audience. Fine.

But it must be said that a folk audience will laugh at nearly anything. Joan Baez at Newport becomes Shecky Greene in the Catskills. Kellogg was full of banter and schtick at the Swyer Theater, but it became like the proverbial pebble in the shoe during a mile walk: not so troublesome early on, but later on, grating.

Kellogg’s songs have the occasional nice pop hook, but don’t vary much and sound like they would be served better by a power-pop band backing them. His set often became cutesy and hammy, even within the songs. I’m not saying that all artists would benefit from a near-death experience or two, but sometimes you’ve got to wonder.

Ritter, by comparison, was more earthy, and really dug deep down into his fare, opening with the ruminative, finger-plucked “Best for the Best,” wherein Ritter used one of his two voices, a hushed, husky-sung whisper. Ritter bounded on stage in a white suit, taking his place in a circle of white floor lights. Ritter’s Dylanisms are obvious, especially in his unrestrained lyricism; he also nods to Springsteen’s oft-cited Nebraska tendencies—an influence that a few bars of the Boss’ “State Trooper” (in the middle of Ritter’s own “Harrisburg”) did nothing to dispel.

Ritter’s tunes are full of dramatic episodes—not so much quietly poetic ruralisms—ships, riverboats, and men burning at both ends haunt his verses. Ritter is not so much “Americana” as he is possessed by a sort of universal, transatlantic folk mythology. (It’s little wonder he’s such a hit in Ireland.)

“Monster Ballads” also pointed to the way Ritter can ply his lyrical strengths to gorgeously melodic turns. Even when his acoustic guitar became painfully out-of-tune (never quite returning for some time) there was a sense of daring and fearlessness that transcended simple performance. There’s something innocent yet Dionysian about Ritter, right down to his halo of shiny, wavy hair.

Even at his young age, Ritter’s music quietly grabs you by the lapels and then stares you right in the face. His performance of “Harrisburg” was the center around which much of the rest of the night seemed to swarm. Here, Ritter the “artist” to be reckoned with, coalesced, as in his other voice, a Dylanesque growl, he spat into the mic, “Some say that man is the root of all evil; others say God’s a drunkard for pain/Me I believe that the Garden of Eden was burned to make way for a train.”

—Erik Hage

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