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Maria Schneider’s ‘Data Lords’

Amid the flood of music commenting on the various crises confronting our world in the twenty-first century, it’s interesting to see that some of those who work with conventionally structured big bands are finding new ways to make their voices heard. In 2016, Darcy James Argue’s Real Enemies explored the paranoia of a society under surveillance while the Liberation Music Orchestra released Time/Life, in which Charlie Haden and Carla Bley did for environmental concerns what they had previously done for political protest movements. Now comes Maria Schneider’s Data Lords, a series of pieces in which the American composer expresses her disquiet over where the unscrupulous use of technology and our carelessness with the earth’s resources are leading us.

“I mourn the loss of our internal landscapes just as I mourn the loss of our external landscapes,” she writes in the notes. Data Lords not a sermon. It’s music, finely wrought: a suite of 11 movements, divided in two, on a pair of CDs. But it does have driving impulses. The first disc, The Digital World, reacts to the threat posed by mass data collection and artificial intelligence (in her notes, she quotes Stephen Hawking’s claim that beyond a certain point in the evolution of AI, it will turn on humanity and destroy it). The second, Our Natural World, reflects on what we stand to lose unless we find a way of turning back the tide of destruction.

Schneider was a pupil of Gil Evans, whose benign influence can be heard in the care with which she selects and combines her textures, with a special emphasis on rich and resonant writing for brass. Like him, she is brilliant at creating settings for the individual soloists among the 18-piece band on this recording. Those who distinguish themselves in their featured slots include the altoists Steve Wilson and Dave Pietro, the trombonist Ryan Keberle, the tenorists Rich Perry and Donny McCaslin, the baritonist Scott Robinson, the trumpeter Mike Rodriguez, the pianist Frank Kimbrough, the accordionist Gary Versace, the guitarist Ben Monder, the bassist Jay Anderson and the drummer Johnathan Blake.

The mood on the first disc is predominantly dark, ominous, fretful. Monder opens “A World Lost” with ruminative flights of sustain and light-touch distortion that show how profoundly Jimi Hendrix has influenced younger guitarists. McCaslin is eloquent on “CQ, CQ, Is Anybody There?” and Robinson is marvellously affecting on “Sputnik”, delivering pathos without sentimentality. The track “Data Lords” features Rodriguez making imaginative use of electronics over sombre writing that coils its tensions in a manner recalling some of Mingus’s late big-band pieces, with Anderson and Blake providing a free-flowing commentary.

The pieces on the second disc variously celebrate a temple in Kyoto, the work of the potter Jack Troy, the night sky, the words of the poet Ted Kooser, and birdlife. The mood is lighter, gentler, more optimistic, the tone set on the opening “Sanzenin” by Versace’s nimble, piping accordion: the sound of wind through reeds, the gentle swells of the brass and reeds echoing the surge of the instrument’s bellows. “Look Up” is a vehicle for Gilkes’s burnished tone and liquid articulation, over a gloriously mellow groove, while Pietro shines on the glowing “Braided Together”.

Concluding her notes, Schneider observes: “The internet doesn’t have to be all about secret surveillance, data exploitation, overreaching terms of use, and systems designed to make every human addicted to their services. It can be used to assist us all in making the world a better place.” She’s doing her bit, and Data Lords is highly recommended as a vigorous, vital, imaginative and lustrously beautiful part of the soundtrack to our times.

* The photograph of Maria Schneider is from the booklet accompanying Data Lords, and is by Briene Lermitte. The beautifully packaged album was made through and is available from ArtistShare, which facilitates fan-funded projects: http://www.artistshare.com

7 Comments Post a comment
  1. Tony F #

    This set sounds like a must-have. Her long-awaited concert with the full US band at Birmingham (UK) Symphony Hall was a true highlight of my jazz-going life. Delightful writing for the band, some amazing solos, and a balletic approach to conducting. Memorable, for all the right reasons.

    September 27, 2020
  2. Interesting as ever, but clearly not the same Maria Schneider who co-starred (with Brando) in Last Tango in Paris… and perhaps sadly so?

    September 27, 2020
  3. Richard, many thanks for flagging this up. ‘Data Lords’ is a phenomenal piece. The scope is huge. The voicings and textures are just so imaginative. And the ending is gorgeous. The challenge it throws up is one of categorisation. It involves a large ensemble of jazz musicians but is anything but Big Band jazz. I am not terribly in touch with what ‘classical composers’ are writing these days. But my instinct is that the ‘classical form’ has failed to develop at anything like the same rate as jazz and that most of that audience really just wants the classical equivalent of tribute acts. ‘Data Lords’ is developing a longstanding compositional tradition in such an imaginative way, one that could and would be appreciated by a large body of people if only they heard it. The piece has, at times, a cinematic quality, of a dystopian sort. I can’t help feeling that Maria Schneider would be much better known and appreciated if she could work with an imaginative film maker. Where’s Wim Wenders when you need him?

    September 28, 2020
  4. GuitarSlinger #

    ” Where’s Wim Wenders when you need him ? ” Mr Kelly asks .

    Same place as every other talented , intelligent , creative , iconoclast in the arts .

    e.g. ” No longer relevant in the eyes of the entertainment and arts industry … with an emphasis on the word … ‘ Industry ‘ … and in WW’s ( and my ) case … smart enough to of gotten the H-E double hockey sticks out when he did

    In as far as quality music finding its way on to soundtracks . Them days is done and dusted I’s afeared .These days … its all about cramming POP Schlock into soundtracks ( whether it fits or not ) in order to PROFIT from soundtrack sales

    As for Maria . Everything she touches deserves attention . The problem is … by limiting herself to what in my opinion ( I was courted by them so I know of what I speak ) ) is at the very least .. a questionable entity ( e.g. ArtistShares ) thereby NOT making her albums available to the general public … especially a discerning general public unwilling to deal with an internet gone oligarch ‘ Big Brother ‘ rogue ….

    ….Ms Schneider is not … and most likely will never garner the attention , praise , kudos … and dare I be so bold …. profits .. she ultimately deserves . Which is in my never humble opinion .. a ( bleep ) shame !

    FYI ; Her CD’s have come to me via a … err … privileged .. back door [ wink wink ] .. so yes … I know her music extremely well .. not to mention the work she did with David Bowie etc et al

    September 28, 2020
    • John Evans #

      The currency exchange rate and the high cost of postage from the US mean that I have never considered buying CDs through ArtistShare.

      A small digression about Wim Wenders — the last Wenders film I watched was ‘Lisbon Story’, bought years ago on DVD and put aside until I was in the mood for it. Not only did it include some interesting music (not jazz) but it explored the idea that ‘even the sounds shine’, a quote from a Fernando Pessoa poem that also provided an album title for Myra Melford around the same time.

      September 29, 2020
  5. Paul Crowe #

    A terrific and inspiring piece, Richard. Do I understand that the record will not be retailed in the normal way ?

    September 29, 2020
    • Tony F #

      I recall reading somewhere that ArtistShare have (or at least had) a European distributor, based (I think) in Spain. However I have not been able to trace it. ArtistShare seems to give the artists far greater control of all stages of the process, and a bigger share of the takings by avoiding everyone else getting a rake-off, so I get the point, but not being able to get the products from ‘normal’ outlets (and I don’t mean Amazon) is irksome.

      September 29, 2020

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