Playing in a large Los Angeles concert hall for the first time Wednesday night, the Maria Schneider Jazz Orchestra gave us a startlingly different yet wonderful vision of what a big band can sound like. In fact, there were a couple of passages that rose to the spine-chilling level of sublime — and when was the last time that happened at a big band concert?
A small-town Minnesota native, as she enthusiastically pointed out several times, Schneider became a protegee of Gil Evans (quite a role model) toward the end of his life. Since then, she has established a solid foothold in the New York jazz scene as a progressive big-band leader, even breaking some ground last year when her “Concert in the Garden” CD became the first Internet-only-distributed album to win a Grammy (available through Mariaschneider.com). There are still trace elements of Evans in Schneider’s harmonic writing, yet she has evolved far beyond his influence — finding new combinations of color within big-band conventions, daring to give the hoary old accordion a distinctive lead voice, using the piano, electric guitar and drum kit in a painter-like fashion and leading her band with graceful swimming motions.
There are overt displays of autobiography in Schneider’s work, distinct storylines, moments when the pulse disappears and the mood is everything. Indeed, Schneider’s band has more of a kinship with Europe’s adventurous big bands than it does with her mostly tradition-shackled American colleagues.
The opening number, the title track from “Concert in the Garden,” set the table gorgeously, with gong-like use of cymbals, a high note on the accordion resembling the whine of bowed crotales, clusters from the piano and a samba groove gently propelling the piece on its way.
The evening’s other revelation was “The Pretty Road,” which Schneider described at length as a love song to her hometown of Windom, Minn. It’s a narrative tone poem, opening with plain, sturdy Midwestern harmonies, building in volume and drive until it dissolves in a tranquil, idyllic, touching vision of a small town as seen from high on a hill.
“Aires de Lando,” a commission from the Los Angeles Philharmonic, explored South American cross-rhythms in a laid-back, tango-like groove, and “Hang Gliding” was a graphic play-by-play of the thrills and terror of a hang gliding episode Schneider experienced in Brazil.
Big-band concerts usually strive to leave you breathless and super-charged. This one made you feel contemplative, absorbed, emotionally moved. Just like Gil.