“It was the kind of timeless evening in Louisiana when spring and fall and winter and summer come together in a perfect equinox, so exquisite and lovely that the dying of the light seems a violation of a divine ordinance. It was an evening that was wonderful in every way possible. Street musicians were playing in Jackson Square; the air smelled of beignets baking in Café du Monde; the clouds were ribbed like strips of fire above a blue band of light that still clung to the bottom of the sky.” [James Lee Burke, from his novel Creole Belle [Simon & Schuster 2012]
In his series of mystery novels involving his fictional police character, David Robicheaux, author James Lee Burke creates a heady and intense vision of New Orleans. Burke’s prose leaps off the page with great drama and emotional impact. His plot twists are dastardly fun and splendid examples of how a great novelist can lure you into his world with the galvanizing use of language and images.
The music of Maria Schneider, (like the stunning prose of James Lee Burk), fully immerses the listener in a sprawling, colorful world. Schneider is one of those rare composers who, through her compelling selection of sounds, instrumental colors and cross-rhythms, creates music that one wants to listen to (and linger in) as long as possible – like that great novel one cannot put down. Schneider has surrounded herself with a superb cast of musicians in the Maria Schneider Orchestra (“MSO”) who, (individually and collectively), deliver the impact of Schneider’s adventurous creations with great verve and technical prowess.
The delectable musical prose that MSO delvers was on full display when the MSO took the stage at Seiji Ozawa Hall (“Ozawa”) at Tanglewood in Lenox, MA. this past August. This particular MSO performance, (conducted with bravado by Schneider, their amicable and fearless leader), turned out to be one of the most memorable concerts by a large ensemble heard in recent memory.
As a preliminary note, the aural fit between Ozawa and the MSO could not have been more aligned on this late summer evening at Tanglewood. Ozawa is one of the great treasured halls in our region. Its architecture (resembling a rustic summer camp hall with wood latticed balconies, high windows and carefully planned irregular surfaces) creates an airy environment where notes from acoustic instruments and voices sound beautifully natural and pristine. In Ozawa, sound carries with an airy lightness and a crispness that is amazing to hear. In such a quicksilver environment, the dynamic nuances of music are heard to an extraordinary degree. Nothing is hidden in Ozawa: every bowing; every breathe; every syncopation and vocal caress and every triumph (and misstep!) is heard limpid and distinct. Ozawa also has a unique design: its rear wall is ceremoniously removed before each performance. This allows for sounds to decay naturally and laconically into the great surrounding expanse of the lawn and the Berkshire Mountains that surround this idyllic hall.
Ozawa turned out to be the perfect sonic partner for the music of Maria Schneider because Schneider’s music moves with an unerring touch for dynamic nuance and sonic adventure- precisely Ozawa’s forte. For instance, the concert opened with light, pizzicato notes struck by accordionist extraordinaire, Gary Versace, in his opening to Schneider’s composition, “A Patter Song.” Versace’s nervy pitter-patter was heard sweet, silvery and crisp within Ozawa’s nest and melded beautifully with pianist Frank Kimbrough’s isolated twinkle of chord touches and drummer Clarence Penn’s concise cymbal swirls. Moving from this light playful start, the MSO launched into a swinging Brazilian samba ignited by a brawny, metallic solo from Ryan Keberle on trombone (propelled from underneath by Jay Anderson’s pungent acoustic bass lines). Within Ozawa, all of this self-assured drama (with its individualized string plucks, brass plunges and kinetic textures) was heard crisp, clear and harmonically rich.
Schneider’s roving compositional range was further highlighted when the MSO moved from the sensual sway of Brazilian rhythms to exploring the angular and variegated colors of Schneider’s composition “Field A-1.” Schneider explained from the stage how this composition pays homage to that part of the human brain that “lights up” when we understand the elegance to a particular mathematical problem or artful endeavor. In this exploration of tones and colors, Greg Gisbert’s flugelhorn solo (with Anderson plucking behind) darted and leaped from a bluesy corner into a blazing sunshine of blares (with Schneider remarking: “That’s insane!”). A solo from trombonist Marshall Gilkes followed, with his trombone filling Ozawa to its brim with deep brewing tones and a descending funky groove.
This beautiful weaving of instrumental colors, textures and tones culminated in the MSO’s performance of Schneider’s two compositions “Nimbus” and “The Thompson Fields” (the latter is the title of the MSO’s upcoming recording, due to be released this April on ArtistShare (www.artistshare.com; www.mariaschneider.com). On these two adventurous numbers each strand of Schneider’s vivid musical prose was heard distinct and crisp within Ozawa. Saxophonists Steve Wilson and Donny McCaslin delivered blasts of atonal, angular surges while guitarist Land Lund flowed soft, resonant and spacious on his strings. On “Thompson Fields,” drummer Penn sent layers of light cymbal and snare hits cascading off Ozawa’s walls- like wind flowing through the trees and bean fields of Schneider’s Minnesota homeland. The concert concluded with a sweet flowing ballad, shimmering with portent in the deep purple tones of Rich Perry’s unfurling sax solo.
It is also a treat to listen to recordings by members of the MSO who, in their own side projects, have collaborated to make superb music. One such stellar example is the new recording from MSO pianist Frank Kimbrough, who is joined by MSO members Steve Wilson and Jay Anderson, (along with drummer Lewis Nash) on The Frank Kimbrough Quartet [Palmetto Records – www.palmetto-records.com ]. Kimbrough has been a favorite pianist here at bostonconcertreviews for some time. His past solo releases and his appearances in local area concerts have always been deeply satisfying. For example, Kimbrough has appeared as a sideman in support of the kinetic (New England Conservatory grad) saxophonist Noah Preminger, both in concert as well as on Preminger’s dignified album Before The Rain [Palmetto Records; www.noahpreminger.com] where great ballads, (like Hart and Rodgers “Where or When”) have never sounded more luscious.
On his latest release, Kimbrough’s talent for spinning his own tales shines through brilliantly. Kimbrough is (sometimes) a man of few words who uses spacious long-held piano notes, open textures and evolving melodic lines to tell his beguiling stories. This is particularly evident on his compositions “The Call,” “November” and “Beginning.” These numbers surge with an open-ended feel as Kimbrough roams his piano with a soft lyricism as well as a piquant feel for silence and pauses.
This looseness (and almost casual feel) for melodic exploration is buttressed by Nash’s magnificent cymbal and snare work where Nash surrounds Kimbrough’s tangle of melody and precise notes in a net of shimmering metallic mesh. In contrast, “The Call” ends on a note of abbreviation and anticipation from Kimbrough’s lingering note and Nash emphasizing the moment with a swipe of his cymbal’s edge with his stick that cuts like a beacon of light. These are all beautiful pieces that move with evolving momentum, garnering speed on Wilson’s shifting climbs upward on his sax and Anderson adding his spice of big, juicy plucks on his acoustic bass. The recording captures all of this dramatic momentum and action with great imaging; a layered and airy soundstage and an upfront perspective that lays Anderson’s juicy plucks right in your lap (if your system is up to it!).
This Quartet can swing with the best of them too. On Kimbrough’s funky “Kudzu,” Kimbrough sprays notes like a spoke breaking on a bicycle wheel that sputters and shakes but rolls on with Wilson’s sax solo urging its bluesy momentum. Another cut with great (circular) action is “Afternoon In Paris,” which is kicked off with Kimbrough’s precise choice of notes (as sharp as any of James Lee Burke’s bracing paragraphs)- jumping with anticipation of the bouncy melodic line. The rest of the band jams (like a carousel on steroids), with Nash and Anderson providing soulful foundation. Kimbrough’s solo here is filled with a cross-hatching of rhythms and textures in great bravado. It reminds of his own spirited fellowship with Schneider and her own colorful and adventurous music filled with immersive narratives to savor and explore.