The cover art of composer/big-band leader Maria Schneider’s most recent album Data Lords (ArtistShare, 2020) says it all — a single leaf with the left half consisting of natural, somewhat deteriorating foliage and the right half a printed circuit. This illustrates Schneider’s split musical reaction to the digital world that has taken de facto control of many of our lives, and the organic natural world, which she finds it takes “great effort” to access nowadays.
Schneider and her orchestra presented extended excerpts from the double album at Walt Disney Concert Hall Friday night, along with a few choice words that leave little doubt that that she is now using her music as a potent megaphone of protest and advocacy.
For Schneider, it’s political and it’s personal. She has been outspoken about how streaming cheats musicians of their livelihood — and by extension, the way corporate digital commerce has been destroying the Main Streets of small towns and cities and how tech companies exploit data gathered from users without compensation, tax-free, and make billions from it.
She has testified before the Congressional Subcommittee on Intellectual Property, and writes thoughtful, detailed essays on the topic. She practices what she preaches, too; her recordings are not available on major streaming services, and she has been relying on crowd-funding for her CDs and downloads through ArtistShare for nearly two decades — well ahead of the advent of Kickstarter and other such ventures. And she often writes music rooted in her own experiences, whether reminiscing about her Midwestern childhood or doing battle with the digital behemoths
After an opening number, an earlier commission for Carnegie Hall that featured the sophistcated, subtle shadings of her past albums, conducted gracefully and with a lilt, Schneider made an abrupt gear shift into Data Lords for the remainder of the set. The first excerpt borrowed its title verbatim from Google’s former credo, “Don’t Do Evil,” treating it with devastating irony — a lurching, evil-sounding theme with sarcastic muted trumpets and a marauding, noisy march, followed by a relatively quiet section, and finally a fairly hopeful chorale that quotes “Taps” at the close.
Longtime Schneider baritone sax man Scott Robinson, aptly outfitted in a colorful vest that pictured all of the planets, was the featured soloist on “Sputnik,” a slow, majestic thing drifting through space after opening with wheezing, softly popping sounds. And in the title track of Data Lords — i.e., the tech companies — the writing got even tougher, the band building to a chaotic, deliberately disturbing climax of dissonance and anger that is a departure for this usually reflective Minnesotan, fading away to despair as the digital world destroys humankind.
Schneider also included two more relaxed excerpts from the natural world portion of the album — “Stone Song,” a somewhat hesitant-sounding piece inspired by a stone-like object which drummer Johnathan Blake played like a shaker and, as an encore, “Sanzenin,” a gentle, sustained chorale with a high-pitched accordion lead. Whether meditating or storming the gates, this high-powered big band serves Schneider’s often densely harmonized charts well.
Last I saw violinist Regina Carter, she was playing in three different settings in three different styles at the 2017 Monterey Jazz Festival — best when swinging as hard as Stephane Grappelli ever did (and that’s saying something) in a set at the festival’s Night Club. In the much splashier interior of Disney Hall, it was just her quartet, yet diversity was again on the menu.
She started off with what sounded at first like a swinging anonymous blues with a sly quote from “Night Train,” but it soon dawned on me that this was really the Beatles’ “Can’t Buy Me Love” — which is a modified blues of sorts. A classical-like cadenza evoking Tchaikovsky and J.S. Bach was the launching pad for “My Favorite Things” — staying with the tune’s chord changes in the solos, unlike the famous modal Coltrane version. Accompanied by hand percussion on the drums and piano desk, a long bass solo led to a retooling of the percolating Afro-Brazilian groove for a jazz quartet on Richard Bona’s “Mandingo Street” (from Carter’s Rhythms of the Heart album, where Bona overdubbed all the instruments except Carter’s).
After a very slow, almost mournful “I’ll Be Seeing You,” with “America the Beautiful” interpolated by Carter as if bidding farewell to the country we once knew, the foursome got down to some hard swinging on Benny Carter’s (no relation) happy-go-lucky “Squatty Roo,” with lots of good stop-time humor. It was another engaging something-for-everyone set from this versatile violinist, now 55 and as gracious as ever.