Maria Schneider Orchestra
"Sky Blue"

(Artist Share)

Review by Brad Walseth

In breaking new ground in music composition on her award winning release, "Sky Blue," Maria Schneider has rediscovered something missing from much of modern music: Beauty. In taking her Midwestern church hymns and memories of pastoral sunny days in Nature and combining these personal reflections on the beautiful, mixing in Third World rhythms and painting with the jazz orchestral palette to produce soft and vibrant colors, she has realized a personal vision that speaks to the universal. That her orchestra has been together for 15 years allows her to know her players strengths and write for them. She also trusts her members creativity and places them in spots where they can be intimately involved in the creation of the work as whole. And the end result is music that sounds organic and "live."

"The Pretty Road" opens things up and could almost be a "pop" tune. This is a lovely piece that paints a shimmering picture from the composer's memory of childhood. Ingrid Jensen is soloist here on flugelhorn and trumpet with electronics and repays the composer's faith in her with some vivid and imaginative playing. "Aires de Lando" is a shifting Peruvian-influenced number, which allows Scott Robinson to tango on his clarinet. Gary Versace's charming accordion contributes as well to the overall sound here. Meanwhile, the haunting "Rich's Piece" is a lovely showpiece for Rich Perry's subtle and graceful tenor sax work.

The centerpiece (and Grammy Award-winning) 21:55 in length "Cerulean Skies" is a huge soaring arc, a programme written with the migration of birds in mind. Unusually, Schneider breaks the rules here again by having saxophonist Donny McCaslin burn a lengthy solo that climaxes a third of the way into the arrangement, something most composers would regard as unfathomable, yet Schnedier again succeeds through the purity of her personal vision. It is interesting to note that of all the players in the orchestra, McCaslin is perhaps the only one who plays with more of an edge – and he functions to bring a bit of edginess into the sound. After a gentle accordion and piano interlude, and several twists and turns, including vocalist Luciana Souza's airy vocals, the main theme does reappear with a triumph with satisfying alto sax work by Charles Pillow.

Finally, Schneider's title track is an ode to a deceased friend and ends the album on a wistful, yet hopeful note with Steve Wilson's soprano sax gently saying goodbye on this haunting number.

Schneider is an innovator, who is breaking new ground, first by overcoming music corporation greed, insensitivity, hostility or indifference toward the artist, by releasing her own music on her Artist Share Web site, where she is backed by her fans. She also seems to honestly relate to her fans (and her fellow musicians) in a personal, respectful manner, eschewing the "rock star" manner of many artists. In fact, one of the two booklets included in the album packaging gives the reader Maria's insights into each of the musicians and recording engineers involved in the production of the album, giving them the credit they deserve, as well as allowing fans to experience the people and process involved in a more intimate way. And of course, she is also breaking new ground in her music by staying true to her own personal vision in the face of a world that often values art as something less important than commerce. I must admit to having my initial skepticism destroyed and now find myself in the position of great admiration for this artist who is singular in both her strength and gentleness. "Sky Blue" is an album that will have you remembering what it was like to be a child listening to the birds in the trees, and can you ask for anything better than that?

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