ALBUMS: Maria Schneider Assesses The Divide Between Nature and Technology

On Data Lords, the Grammy winning composer and bandleader takes on the Matrix on stunning double LP

Maria Schneider (Art: Ron Hart)

Composer and bandleader Maria Schneider is hard to pigeonhole; and I don’t use the word because of her passion for birdwatching. 

Her collaboration with soprano Dawn Upshaw resulted in a Grammy Award for Best Classical Contemporary Composition. But she subsequently won a Grammy for her collaboration with David Bowie on his masterful swan song Blackstar. That’s range.  

Nominally a Jazz artist (she was named a Jazz Master by the NEA in 2019) she writes music ABOUT things. Things that matter to her. Yes, birds but also pottery, poetry and …data. Her new recording Data Lords is about the companies which, as she writes “ 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.”

Artist: Maria Schneider Orchestra

Album: Data Lords

Label: ArtistShare 

★★★★ (4/5 stars)

Musically contrasting Our Natural World with The Digital World, Data Lords is two CD’s, offering musical commentary on the two realms. On her website, the music is available as a high-quality download, but also as a two-disc set, with packaging and a 60+ page booklet as beautiful and rich as any I’ve seen. The experience of looking at the booklet while listening to the music brought me back to the days of double LP’s with gatefold sleeves, full of artwork. The music started, I opened the booklet, and I came unglued.  

Sure, music is supposed to move the listener, but it can enlighten and illuminate as well. Having read the booklet while listening to “Stone Song,” from the Natural World disc, I now know just a bit about Japanese pottery, and I’m reminded what an expressive saxophone player Steve Wilson is. Listening to “Don’t Be Evil,” about Google, from the Digital World CD, I’m reminded what a resourceful guitarist Ben Monder is. Having seen this piece premiered at Newport on August 6th of 2017, I’m thrilled to have a recorded version to return to. Seeing Schneider and her orchestra perform this helped me get past thinking of her as a composer who just writes pleasing pastoral music. Her work IS beautiful. But it can bring forth more, too, even the dread of a world run by big data. Guitarist Monder really brings it here, raising hell on guitar enveloped by the sounds of the orchestra. Bassist Jay Anderson, Trombone player Ryan Keberle and pianist Frank Kimbrough also play beautifully on this and I’m reminded how much Schneider’s powerful music owes to the loyal musicians who bring it to life, many of whom have played with her for decades.  

Maria Schneider Orchestra Data Lords, ArtistShare 2020

In her own illuminating notes about Data Lords, Schneider makes it clear she’s not opposed to the internet itself per se but rather how it’s used in practice by companies which use it now for profit and control rather than light and human connection.  One piece on the recording is about her father’s use of ham radio, which was an early precursor of social media. The resulting composition “CQ, CQ Is Anybody There?” uses Morse Code as a rhythmic structure and sets up a musical dialogue between saxophonist Donny McCaslin and Greg Gisbert, who’s electronically processed trumpet provides a musical foil and suggests a philosophical conversation between the natural and the digital.  

Schneider has always surrounded herself with musicians who blaze their own trails, and like Ellington or Mozart she writes for specific people – not just for instruments. Gary Versace plays accordion on a couple of pieces here and as always when he plays with this ensemble, he makes the case for the instrument just by sounding like himself. He’ll make you miss the accordion the next time you listen to a jazz big band. She calls it an orchestra and that’s apt here not overreach as it occasionally seems to be when other Jazz band leaders use the word.  

Maria Schneider’s not only a world class composer, she’s a passionate critic and observer of the music business and she writes movingly about the subjects which inspire her to write music. If you’ve read this far, consider visiting her page at artistShare, and purchasing DataLords. Purchasers at the site are “participants” not mere consumers. These days, when we’re used to music being commodified – at a price of zero dollars – buying music directly from artists like Schneider is something of a revolutionary act.  


VIDEO: Data Lords short film




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David Beckett

A Realtor in Burlington, Vermont, David Beckett has been a friend to Jazz since 1983. David airs a long running Jazz radio show at WWPV FM and serves as a Jazz Director and music librarian at the station. Follow David on Twitter @DavidBeckettVT

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