(Krakowska Opera, July 16th 2009)
Maria Schneider’s three-part suite, Scenes from Childhood , originally commissioned for the 1995 Monterey Jazz Festival, is a major work in every sense. Its forty minute span- played without breaks- has a strong and convincing narrative backbone. It travels through a vast range of moods, textures and subtleties. It is a piece will doesn’t merely bear repeated listening- its forty minutes pass by very quickly indeed. It requires to be heard again.
Scenes from Childhood, and the two substantial openers which preceded it, Allegresse and Danca Ilusoria, received a meticulously prepared performances, which nonetheless absolutely crackled with life and energy. They provided a thoroughly fitting opening to the NDR Big Band’s three day residency in Krakow. Great sound too from the local team in Krakow’s gleaming brand new (2008) opera house.
Allegresse opened with Gary Husband laying down a pulse with authority and kick. The sustained melodic ideas of Danca Ilusoria were given gorgeous textures- I was particularly struck by a middle of the stave brass choir of pairs of flugelhorns and high trombones. This piece also gave the NDR Big Band’s pianist Wladislaw Sendecki the chance to stretch out, and to receive the kind of adulatory applause reserved for a returning exiled local hero. It was the first of many such whoops and cheers. There will be loads more on this visit, and much deserved: he’s special
In the first part of Scenes from Childhood, entitled Bombshelter Blast, Schneider evokes vivid memories of the cold war. Her father in Minnesota had built a nuclear bunker- a toilet….soup cans in huge quantities, she remembers. The band, and especially Frank Delle as baritone soloist captured well, in full-toned eruptions and wellings, the expressionist nightmare of a child’s vague imaginings of nuclear armageddon, combined with the more tangible and real fear of midwestern tornadoes. In the second part of the suite, Night Watchmen, characterful tenor soloist Lutz Buchner shone. In the third, Coming About , derived from the sailing term, there was a moment to capture the sheer class of the rhythm section trio of Sendecki, Husband , plus the massive bass presence of James Genus, before a triumphant full-band close with blazing lead trumpet, every department of the band confident, secure, exemplary.
The instant transformation of the band for the second half into a lowdown funk unit inspired by seventies Herbie Hancock was quite remarkable. It wasn’t just the addition of conductor Jorg Achim Keller, or extra guitarist Andi Pfeiler. No, the second half was a tribute to the adaptability, class and professionalism of the entire band. And good humour too. I noticed the trombone section, starved of any soloing for the whole set looking particularly cheerful throughout it. Stefan Pfeiffer’s colourful and ambitious chart of Herbie Hancock’s Butterfly worked particularly well, and gave Frank Delle a chance to be wilfully contrarian, and to great effect, on soprano saxophone.
Maria Schneider told me I’m going to be knocked flat by Joao Bosco tonight. On last night’s evidence of all that this band can do…she’s probably right.
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