Seats for multi-award-winning US composer, arranger and bandleader Maria Schneider were at a premium on Saturday night. Everyone, it seemed, wanted to see if the Standard Bank Jazz Festival headliner lived up to the hype. I ended up sitting right next to the left-hand speaker. Despite my having no view of virtuoso pianist Olga Konkova, my seat turned out to be the best in the house. Aside from the glorious sounds from the monitor, a close-up view of the blonde maestro conducting her band was priceless. It was Schneider’s precise hand signals, combined with a dancer’s sensibility, that most enchanted. It was a show on its own.
Opening with “Green Piece” (sic), which acted as a sort of pipe-opener, she followed it with a beautifully textured “Sono” then a minor blues, the Brazilian-flavoured “Gumba Blue”. South Africans John Davies (on bass trombone), trumpeter Marcus Wyatt and saxophonist Dan Shout (in Juluka T-shirt) featured among some heavy-duty Norwegian soloists.
The logistics of fitting the big band on stage were further challenged by musicians weaving their way to the front for their solos. As the evening progressed, compositions left more room for soloing and Schneider herself seemed more relaxed.
The composer’s inspirations are many. They include fine art and literature. A Paul Klee painting is captured in all its childlike scariness and, after reciting “Walking by Flashlight”, a short poem by Ted Kooser, Schneider performs her composition by the same name. This originally formed part of her “Winter Morning Walks”, a triple-Grammy winner in the Classical category this year. The delicacy of the poem is mirrored by the arrangement. In fact, Schneider’s classically-influenced arrangements produce a totally different sound from Gil Evans or Carla Bley. Jens Thoresen’s electric guitar comes into its own in the final work on Saturday night. This is spectacular but never showy.
Schneider confides that she is a bird lover. Fascinated by the whole process of migration, she has composed “Cerulean Skies”. Before performing it, she takes us through the journey from dawn chorus, flight, reaching the destination and mating. The story arc is grandly, lyrically, and viscerally realised by the band with added bird whistles from a few musicians, including Schneider herself. Portraying the single bird on which Schneider focuses, Melissa van der Spuy’s evocative accordion avoids the clichés of the instrument, which more than justifies its place in the band. “Cerulean Skies” is a joyful masterpiece.
Many attempts have been made to fuse jazz and classical music. From “Third Stream” to Jacques Loussier’s Bach interpretations. None have come close to Maria Schneider, who makes the distinction between the genres seem academic.
Once again kudos to Jazz Festival director Alan Webster for bringing this inspiring musician to Grahamstown and, nog boonop, remembering the name of every single member of the 19 piece band, Norwegian pronunciation and all.
We left, flying high!
– Nigel Vermaas