by Monika Viktorova
On a day that started under the soft illumination of a super blue-blood moon suspended in crisp, clear and death-rattle cold, Maria Schneider’s expansive, warm jazz was the perfect Druid for our frostbitten ears. Schneider stepped out onto the densely packed stage to a palpable hush of anticipation, the audience stirring with welcoming energy drawn forth by CKUA’s Tony King. His short introduction was bookended by a bittersweet dedication to the spirit of the late Tommy Banks, the celebrated Canadian Jazz virtuoso who passed away last week. If Tommy was haunting the performance, it was a merry visit from a much-beloved ghost on a night of otherworldly and moving music.
A decorated composer who has worked with stars from Canadian favorite Gil Evans to the late and great David Bowie, Maria Schneider holds the rare privilege of winning Grammy awards in multiple categories, including Jazz and Classical. Her 17 member orchestra, composed of members of the Edmonton Jazz Orchestra, packed together on the stage of Macewan University’s cozy new Triffo Theater. On woodwinds: Kent Sangster, Jerrold Dubyk, Jeremiah McDade, Jim Brenan and Robin Taylor. On trombone: Allen Jacobson, Craig Brenan, Remi Noel, Ken Read. On trumpet: Joel Gray, Doug Berber, Dean McNeill, Sergio Rodriguez. Rhythm provided by Tom van Seters, Jim Head, John Taylor and Jamie Cooper. Schneider herself admitted that they had been too busy rehearsing for her to memorize last names, but there was nothing unwieldy about the crowd of musical voices on stage under her conduction.
Schneider opened with a lively and dramatic piece that could easily be the backdrop of the perp chase scene in a film noir. Guitarist Jim Head and trumpeter Dean McNeill were featured in their first solos of the evening, chasing the chill from our bones. As if by magic, Schneider’s gestures, from the soft to the powerful, pulled the music forth from the instruments, willing it airborne. Schneider, dressed in a long, asymmetrical black lace conductor’s frock, stirred the cauldron of musicians gathered around her, letting the witchy, mystical vibe carry the music emanating from the stage into the audience’s seats.
Her introductions for the various pieces each featured a thoughtful anecdote that grounded the music in its source inspiration. The second song, Gumba Blue, a delicious hodge podge of sound, was appropriately named after what Schneider’s mom called the combining of everything left over in the fridge into one pot of stew. It’s a particularly dreamy number that Schneider created during a time in her life where she was inspired by monsters called Wyrgly, a being that captures its victims by moving its many limbs until to induce a catatonic state. Allen Jacobson’s trombone was the monster’s multiple flailing limbs, Jerrold Dubyk’s tennor sax embodied the catatonic trance induced by the monster and Jim Head’s guitar was the Wyrgley Monster himself, wooing the crowd into submission. Despite the number of musicians on stage, most everyone had a chance to wow with a solo throughout the night, their instruments often personified by Scheider as essential stand-ins for the elements of the song’s backstory.
Schneider’s music often evokes imagery of the open landscapes, that sense of vast isolation understood only by those who have lived in the prairies. A Minnesotan herself, she commiserates with the severe climate and the habitat’s expansiveness, noting its inspiration for the songs performed from her newest album, Home and Walking by Flashlight. The latter bears its name for a poem from Ted Kooser’s ‘Winter Morning Walks’, whose melancholy influence is felt throughout the piece.
The most tumultuous pieces were Choro Dançado and Hang Gliding, from Schneider’s albums Concert in Garden and Allegresse. Inspired by an eventful trip to Brazil, both songs carry a mysterious pensiveness punctuated by a playful edge. “Brazil will change you”, teased Schneider with a wry smile, explaining the tension of Brazilian music’s existence between “a smile and a tear.” Choro Dançado is perfect background music for getting ghosted by your Brazilian boyfriend and taking yourself out to the bar. Meanwhile, Hang Gliding holds a morbid levity, equal parts terror and joy – one to listen to if you need to be inspired to do something impulsive and unthinkable. It closed the show as it had begun- bittersweet- with Schneider joking about the advice she had received before the fateful hang gliding experience that led her to write the piece: you have to keep running, because if you stop before you go off the cliff, you die. “That’s… what you call grim”, she laughed.
Coming out of the concert to the bitter, moonlit cold, I plugged Schneider’s name into Apple Music only to discover a very limited selection of songs (Spotify was equally unhelpful). As a determined millenial, I tracked her music down to bits here and there on Youtube and albums available for purchase on Amazon. I can safely say that I will be purchasing her music, even with the hassle of buying a CD (whose laptop even has a DVD drive anymore), because its eerie magic is worth it. The next time you’re feeling witchy, let Schneider’s music move you into parallel realms. Burn some incense, fill a tub and lather up a coffin-shaped bath bomb (yes, those are a thing) and let the moody, evocative notes conjure otherworldly creatures and landscapes that transport you, just for a little while, to a wholly new state of being.
Banner photography courtesy of Kyra Kverno.