Acclaimed Maria Schneider’s Jazz Orchestra Pits The Digital World vs. The Natural on ‘Data Lords’ (ALBUM REVIEW)

Simply said, put your music where your mouth is. Grammy-winner composer, bandleader, and recently named NEA Jazz Master Maria Schneider has been increasingly outspoken about Google and big data companies, writing articles and white papers, appearing on Copyright Office roundtables and testifying before Congress. Schneider says, “Musicians have been the canary in the coal mine. We were the first to be used and traded for data.” With that passionate point-of-view comes this stunning two album work with Disc One decrying and essaying the digital world as Disc Two paints the contrast of the natural.  “Just as I feel myself ping ponging between a digital world and the real world, the same dichotomy is showing up in my music. In order to truly represent my creative output from the last few years, it felt natural to make a two album release reflecting these two polar extremes,” says Schneider. Three of the pieces on Data Lords have been commissioned, In fact, the entire project is being made, funded and documented through ArtistShare, the world’s first crowd-funding internet platform which Schneider first used in 2003 and is now for the fifth time, and first with vinyl format. The booklet is a true treasure, printing out to over 40 pages when this writer printed it.

Of course, Schneider has a world-class jazz orchestra of contemporary musicians, many that you’re likely familiar with. The Maria Schneider Orchestra spent four days in the studio making Data Lords. Engineered by Brian Montgomery, who also recorded Schneider’s Grammy Award-winning 2015 release The Thompson Fields, Data Lords features the artistry of Schneider’s orchestra that was first recorded in 1992. The current band includes reedists Steve Wilson, Dave Pietro, Rich Perry, Donny McCaslin and Scott Robinson; trumpeters Tony Kadleck, Greg Gisbert, Nadje Nordhuis and Mike Rodriguez; trombonists Keith O’Quinn, Ryan Keberle, Marshall Gilkes and George Flynn; accordionist Gary Versace, guitarist Ben Monder, pianist Frank Kimbrough, bassist Jay Anderson and drummer Johnathan Blake.

“A World Lost,” which begins Disc 1, longs for a simpler time when we were all more connected to the earth and each other. Its mournful sound comes through the dark tones of Ben Monder (guitar), who underpins much of the sound on this disc, and Rich Perry (tenor), with their instruments blending beautifully but ominously.  “Don’t Be Evil” musically mocks Google for their absurd inspirational motto, where from the beginning, they set their ethical standards at rock bottom. Powerful solos are delivered by Jay Anderson (bass), Ben Monder (guitar), Ryan Keberle (trombone), and Frank Kimbrough (piano). This piece builds to explosive moments.

“CQ CQ, Is Anybody There?” looks back at ham radio, a hobby of Schneider’s father, and Morse code (the first electronic binary language) used to communicate around the world. Schneider points out in the liners that ham radio, unlike the internet, includes accountability, a code of ethics and no commercialism. All of Schneider’s rhythms in this piece spell out Morse code messages like power, greed, SOS and CQ (is anybody there). Donny McCaslin’s yearning, pleading tenor rises out of a world of Morse/ham chatter as a human voice looking for connection, but what he encounters is artificial intelligence in the form of Greg Gisbert’s electrified trumpet. 

“Sputnik” evokes the orchestral sound of outer space, (rather remarkably considering there are no strings), and our thousands of satellites orbiting the earth now launched by big data firms in a new kind of space race where Schneider imagines a massive digital exoskeleton orbiting the earth. Its short theme evokes everything from the quiet cosmos to something almost Wagnerian in power, and throughout Scott Robinson’s baritone holds sway. “Data Lords” looks at the very moment where artificial intelligence becomes more intelligent than humans. This intense and powerful piece follows Stephen Hawking’s dark prediction of AI choosing to turn on us and destroy us. Soloists are the soaring Mike Rodriguez (electrified trumpet) and Dave Pietro (alto) as if depicting a future age aerial battle, known in the last century as a “dogfight.” Schneider writes, “I can’t imagine I’m alone in often feeling desperate to get away from every device bombarding me with endless chatter, endless things – endless demands. Disc One offers highly imaginative, revelatory, at times breathtaking music as in the title track.

The natural world, by definition, needs to feel more tangible, and varied in tone. On Disc 2 the first two pieces are drawn from the serene images of the temple gardens and refined art of Japan. “Sanzenin” is inspired by magical and meditative temple gardens, hundreds of years old, north of Kyoto, Japan. In this piece, Gary Versace (accordion) wanders through these playful gardens in a piece that is as diametrically calm as “Data Lords” is violent. “Stone Song” makes musical use of ceramicist Jack Troy’s whimsical ishi no sasayaki (secret voice in the stone) pottery to imagine the world of a little stone waiting to be bumped, kicked or rolled, only to wait years or centuries to be moved again. Utilizing the most space of any piece probably ever written by Schneider, “Stone Song” showcases the brilliant art of listening in this orchestra. Steve Wilson is featured on soprano mimicking the bouncing stone with masterful support from Gary Versace (accordion), Frank Kimbrough (piano), Jay Anderson (bass), and Johnathan Blake (drums), all contributing to “pinball machine” effects as the stone travels. Blake deserves a callout as he is easily one of most creative drummers in jazz, also a bandleader and sideman, like most all the musicians here, on numerous projects. 

“Look Up” showcases Marshall Gilkes on trombone in the form of a piece that harmonically feels majestic and grandly cinematic. “Braided Together,” based on poetry by Ted Kooser, features Dave Pietro (alto) and is filled with space and simplicity. “Bluebird” soars through many keys and moods and features distinctly contrasting solos by Steve Wilson (alto) and Gary Versace (accordion). “The Sun Waited for Me,” is chorale-like and features Donny McCaslin on tenor, with its lyrical melody played by Marshall Gilkes on trombone. Based on another Kooser poem, the piece reminds us that each day may have something completely new to offer. 

Since the making of her last album, The Thompson Fields, Schneider has worked with David Bowie on a collaboration titled Sue (Or In a Season of Crime). In 2020, her album, Concert in the Garden, was put in the National Recording Registry, and Schneider was also elected into the prestigious American Academy of Arts and Sciences.  Expect this project, at a minimum, to be a Grammy contender with perhaps historic recognition in the wings at some point.

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