Maria Schneider’s imagination is as expansive as the wide vistas of the American prairie where she grew up. She doesn’t write tunes or songs; she composes jazz orchestral pieces that stretch or outreach song forms. The expansiveness of her artistic vision is evinced in her panoptic sense of time and space. And she continues to broaden that view on the five pieces that comprise Sky Blue, her latest and most self-assured album.
While her approach draws from the impressionism of her mentor, the late Gil Evans, Schneider for the most part eschews Evans’ expansions of the instrumental range of the jazz orchestra. While he added French horns, tubas, exotic double-reeds and electronic keyboards to his ensembles, Schneider works largely within the confines of the traditional big band configuration of saxes (doubling flutes and clarinets), trumpets/flugelhorns and trombones with piano, guitar, bass and drums. But she pushes the range of those instruments to extremes in her writing, and on some tracks she augments the band with Latin percussionists, Gary Versace’s accordion and Luciana Souza’s voice.
Schneider’s approach is highly sensual and expressive, filled with both sultry and fine-spun emotions. Pieces like “Aires de Lando,” wherein she explores multi-layers of rhythm and odd meters, and “Cerulian Skies,” a symphony-long piece incorporating bird sounds, are filled with prolonged musical foreplay, as sonic forces are marshaled with exquisite slow-building tension. The two pieces also apply Schneider’s widest orchestral and rhythmic palettes, and feature some of the CD’s most singular, arresting solos, from clarinetist Scott Robinson on “Aires de Lando” and Versace plus saxophonists Donny McCaslin and Charles Pillow on “Cerulean Skies.” “The ‘Pretty’ Road” is a highly panoramic piece beginning with a folk-like melody from piano, accordion and voice that blossoms into swirling orchestra and flugelhorn and electrified trumpet solos by Ingrid Jensen. The romantic “Rich’s Place” and elegiac “Sky Blue” are jazz concerti featuring, respectively, Rich Perry’s tenor sax and Steve Wilson’s soprano sax, both wrapped in sumptuous sonic robes by Schneider’s orchestrations.