Photo by Dina Regine

CD Review: Maria Schneider “Data Lords”

“In the digital world, data lords, who are in a race to amass the entire world’s information, hypnotize us with conveniences, endless information at our fingertips, limitless entertainment, “curated” content, and endless other enticements. While many of those things offer us wonderful tools that enhance our lives and societies in mind-bending ways, a vast number of the enticements numb our minds and lure us into submissiveness.”Maria Schneider

Maria Schneider CD CoverArtist: Maria Schneider Orchestra
Title: Data Lord
Label: self published via Mariaschneider.com
Genre: jazz/protest songs

Featured photo above by Dina Regine

CD Review by Dawoud Kringle

With an impressive list of accomplishments to her credit, it’s clear Maria Schneider is someone to be reckoned with. So, it’s not surprising that her newest release, Data Lords was met with great interest and anticipation – and an expectation that the music at least matches her past accomplishments.

Schneider has worked with Jazz at Lincoln Center, The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, and David Bowie. She is a rarity; having received twelve GRAMMY nominations and five GRAMMY awards jazz and classical categories, and for the single “Sue (Or In A Season of Crime);” her collaboration with David Bowie. Her 2004 album, Concert in the Garden made history as the first recording to win a GRAMMY with Internet-only sales. She’s been awarded many honors by the Jazz Journalists Association and DOWNBEAT and JAZZTIMES Critics and Readers Polls. In 2012 the University of Minnesota, presented her with an honorary doctorate. In 2014, ASCAP awarded her the Concert Music Award In 2019, the National Endowment for the Arts named Schneider an NEA Jazz Master. Her Concert in the Garden was inducted into the 2019 National Recording Registry. Schneider was also given the distinction of being elected into the 2020 American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Schneider has also been a strong advocate for musician’s rights. A supporter of Musicians For Musicians (MFM), she testified before the US Congressional Subcommittee on Intellectual Property about digital rights in 2014, appeared on CNN, and participated in round-table discussions for the United States Copyright Office.

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. Numerous publications quoted her views on Spotify, Pandora, YouTube, Google, digital rights, and music piracy. Her advocacy for musicians rights has even extended to her suing YouTube for failing to protect “ordinary creators” such as herself from unauthorized copying and use of their work.

Schneider composed all the music in this collection (and mixed the recording with Brian Montgomery). She leads Steve Wilson (alto/soprano/clarinet/flute/alto flute), Dave Pietro (alto/clarinet/piccolo/flute/alto flute), Rich Perry (tenor), Donny McCaslin – tenor/flute), Scott Robinson (baritone/Bb, bass & contra-bass clarinets/muson), Tony Kadleck (trumpet/flügelhorn), Greg Gisbert (trumpet/flügelhorn), Nadje Noordhuis (trumpet/flügelhorn), Mike Rodriguez (trumpet/flügelhorn), Keith O’Quinn (trombone), Ryan Keberle (trombone), Marshall Gilkes (trombone), George Flynn (bass trombone), Gary Versace (accordion), Ben Monder (guitar), Frank Kimbrough (piano), Jay Anderson (bass), and Johnathan Blake (drums/percussion).

Released on April 17th, 2020, and available exclusively at MariaSchneider.com, Data Lords was made, fan-funded and documented through ArtistShare (her fifth ArtistShare album to date). The double CD includes an informative booklet with beautiful artwork by Aaron Horkey.

So, without further preamble, let’s go to the music.

The collection (CD1) opens with “A World Lost.” A dark, mournful piano figure appears in the distance. Strange sounds punctuate the desolation implied in the brooding minor chords. A guitar melody works its way to the front, grounded in the piano’s harmony, and occasionally allying with the ghostly horns and breaking its unity with the piano with a sharp 4 or other unexpected note. The piano shifts its figure with the guitar following closely. Somehow, percussions have made their way into the mix, dancing menacingly around the piano. Suddenly, the mood turns bright, and suggests the possibility of hope, before this optimism is shattered by a return to the darkness. Horns step forward and take the place of the guitar. The music increases in emotion and intensity until, finally, the inevitable loss of a world is accepted with peaceful resignation.

“Don’t Be Evil” begins with a playful dialogue between the horns, piano, and bass. A group of Miles Davis-esqe muted trumpets call out from the distance, as if to ask what this is all about. Finally, a horn section comes forward, and everything coalesces into a stately jazz piece. At this point, it’s clear Schneider took a page from the Charles Mingus book of orchestration and rewrote it to suit her own purposes. The Mingus influence is further tinkered with when Monder’s guitar imposes echoes of Sonny Sharrock on the adventurous harmonic structure. A trumpet takes over and shadow boxes with Schneider’s inventive orchestration. Suddenly, the desperate soloing over the labyrinthian chords gives way to a stark interplay between piano, bass, and drums. The horn section appears with its own sometimes seductive and sometimes weird voicing. The entire piece continues to trade one kind of emotional intensity with another until it abruptly exhausts itself.

Schneider’s adventurous and evocative process continues with “CQ CQ, Is Anybody There?” Spooky sounds appear like shining predator eyes in a dark fog. One expects to hear Vincent Price laughing with sadistic intent at any moment. But Price’s maniacal cackle is replaced by a subtle interplay between the horns. Eventually, a groove is established, with the horn still at the forefront, transforming the cacophony into a solidified form. A processed horn dances like a mad dervish over the thick background, fighting with the other instruments like a beautiful fight scene in a kung fu movie that can only be improvised. And it all fades into a peaceful resolve.

Maria Schneider

The excursions into jazz’ dark realms (CD2), bringing hidden treasures and trials into the light continue throughout the collection. There are, however, interesting contrasts to this. “Sanzenin” is a serene and contemplative walk through a beautiful garden. A humorous and playful mood permeates “Stone Song.” “Look Up” has an almost Pat Methany-like sense of optimism. “Bluebird” taps into the singular beauty of early Oregon, throws flavorings of Astor Piazolla into the mix, and translates it to the big band.

“Data Lords,” the title track, ties everything in this two CD collection together. It begins with a moody dirge with the horns fluttering around like predator birds, until a statement emerges, striding like titans, to drive its point home. Just as seamlessly, it softens its own attack, as if to use logic and kindness to justify a harsh message. And it ends by pointing to the very chaos it warns us not to succumb to.

In her press release, Schneider stated that the title track “looks at the moment of singularity 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…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. Shutting it all down and encountering space and silence, I easily find myself again drawn to nature, people, silence, books, poetry, art, the earth and sky. From those encounters came all of the inspirations below.” It’s clear that Schneider had a serious purpose in composing this music. It comes across as an emotional catharsis; almost an exorcism. And it all ends in a triumph of joy and dignity.

It’s clear that Schneider had a serious purpose in composing this music. This is, in fact, a concept album – a rarity in our times. And on many levels, it is a collection of protest songs. Yet, at the same time, it transcends the usual soulless didacticism associated with protest music to produce an authentic emotional catharsis.

Few composers / arrangers / conductors could tame the wild nature of this music – as well as the business, activist, and social consciousness roles this music takes on – as masterfully as Schneider. At any moment, everything she works with here threatens to collapse, or turn and attack its creator. But it never does. In the end, Schneider stands as a master of a rare and powerful musical creation.