not boring: Maria Schneider Jazz Orchestra.
PHOTO: Chris Shields
Band, Big Sound
Maria Schneider Jazz Orchestra
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
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
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.
Joker and the Straight Shooter
Josh Ritter, Stephen Kellogg
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.)
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,
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.”