At the first show of a five-night run at Manhattan’s Jazz Standard, prior to performing “Cerulean Skies,” her last number of the set, Maria Schneider invited the audience to be birds. Schneider doesn’t think small, so even though she had nearly 20 musicians in her employ to flesh out her creations, she required additional sound. The song, she explained, set in an imaginary forest in Brazil, was inspired by her love of birding. She is fascinated by the physiological changes through which a bird goes when it gets the “urge,” and although tenor saxophonist Donny McCaslin was to serve as the primary bird during the lengthy piece, charged with voicing that urge via his horn, the audience had been given bird whistles upon entering to help create the interactive ambience that Schneider desired. At an appointed moment, the roomful of birds took flight inside the club-which is below street level-undoubtedly confusing any pigeons that happened to be listening in.
“I’ve never heard music like that before,” one patron was overheard saying on the way out. And while that may be something of an exaggeration, it’s true that Schneider’s ambitious compositions go beyond the expected. Hers is a multifaceted, multilayered, ambidextrous music, a neo-big-band jazz informed by classical convention, tightly structured but playful enough to allow for individual expression. It’s accessible and easy on the ear, but complex and daring enough to earn accolades from jazz veterans as well as those who might have walked in off the street.