Maria Schneider and the Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Orchestra
(Ronnie Scott’s, 5 July 2019, early show. Review by Jon Turney)
One of the great contemporary jazz composers, Maria Schneider’s intricately arranged music is closely associated with her orchestra, and with some famously long-serving players. But she makes occasional, eagerly awaited, visits overseas as a leader. These call for a first rate ensemble who are ready to go to work – tonight Pete Long’s Ronnie Scott Jazz Orchestra.
They had just two days rehearsal for a three-day engagement, though the scores were sent over here some months before. And it was clear from the opening bars in the first set of their final night that leader and players had established the necessary rapport.
It’s an enticingly high-risk enterprise. Schneider is a real big band composer, and uses all 18 instruments to weave her magic. This set mainly eschews her longer tone poems, but the demands on all concerned remain high. Her most common procedure is to begin a piece, then set up one or more solos, each of which starts with the featured instrument to the fore along with the rhythm section and perhaps a touch of orchestral colouring. As each solo builds, though, it plays against a richer orchestral backdrop. That grows steadily more complex so that the improviser finds themselves becoming joint author of a beautifully contrived mini-concerto. As music, it hews close to formation aerobatics. If anyone faltered, it would end messily. When it works, it is exhilarating for soloist, orchestra, and audience.
Tonight it all works wonderfully, the players dealing with sheaves of music with ease, while
Schneider conjures her effects gracefully, out front, without scores. The lustrous voicings for trumpets and trombones (four of each) and saxes glow and shimmer throughout. There are too many brilliant contributions from soloists to mention, but both Freddy Gavita on trumpet and and Dave O’Higgins’ tenor sax contributions to the old favourite Hang-Gliding stay in the mind, and Karen Street’s accordion feature on the gorgeous Potter’s Song from The Thompson Fields is a quietly masterful showstopper. And Pete Long, while his paleolithic jokes might be best discarded in 2019, presides genially over a band who are clearly having the time of their musical lives, and contributes an entrancing alto clarinet rumination on then encore, Walking by Flashlight.
When Schneider accepted her NEA Jazz Master’s award this year in the US she stressed that “the performers are inseparable from my compositions”. True, of course. But music this rich can always be can be embraced by new performers, and the full house at Ronnie’s enjoyed an ensemble who, for a few hours, made Schneider’s work their own. It felt like a first meeting that should become an annual fixture.