Maria Schneider Orchestra in Pittsburgh
On the second performance of her four-night/five-show stay at the Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild, bandleader Maria Schneider explained that the first set would be devoted to “autobiographical pieces.” “Tork’s Café” (named for a truck stop where she once worked) and “Scenes from Childhood” referenced coming of age in Windom, Minnesota, but the theme carried over into the second set as well, which included “The Pretty Road” a multi-section piece that conjured the visual landscape of her hometown. Although some of her writing veers towards impressionistic, quasi-classical soundtracks of Middle American tales, Schneider balances that with inventive uses of each section’s timbres.
The strength of the performance came in part from the high quality soloists playing in the Schneider Orchestra. Guitarist Ben Monder was first to show off as “Tork’s Café” opened the evening. The acoustics of the Craftsmen’s Guild, coupled with Monder’s creative voice and use of the volume pedal, enabled him to unleash some dirty licks at low volume. As she would throughout the night, Schneider made the ensemble come together like one huge instrument, in this case as a big, cloudy one that evoked the surroundings of a diner.
Scott Robinson spent the evening moving from baritone sax to clarinet and bass clarinet. On “Bomb Shelter Beast,” the first movement of “Scenes From Childhood,” he picked up the bass saxophone for a fleet solo that contrasted with the instrument’s bulk, yet added to the foreboding mood of the piece.
Tenor saxophonists Rich Perry and Donny McCaslin both contributed strong solos throughout the evening, but Ingrid Jensen’s trumpet and flugelhorn work offered some of the strongest moments of the whole night. The emotional pitch of her work, together with a sly quote of “Little Melonae,” evoked Miles Davis paying a visit to the Midwest.
“Concert in the Garden,” the title track of Schneider’s Grammy-winning album, opened the second set, and added vocalist Kate McGarry and accordionist Gary Versace to the stage. McGarry’s wordless vocals, only faintly audible above the horns, didn’t add much to the soundscape though, and the accordion’s high notes could occasionally be mistaken for a cell phone that wasn’t turned off prior to the performance. Yet even these lesser moments had others to outweigh them, and in this case it was bassist Jay Anderson whose melodic foundation maintained a strong presence.
The evening was recorded for future release, which explains why the soloists, save Monder, made their way through the music stands and cables to microphone at center stage. Twice, Schneider stopped the band after a flubbed entrance — once at the end of a piece, the other a few bars into one. Neither one slowed down the pace of the evening, thanks largely to grace of Schneider’s rapport with the audience and control of the orchestra.