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Album Review: Maria Schneider Orchestra - Data Lords

Maria Schneider’s double album Data Lords (please go buy it through ArtistShare) is an almost alarming call to arms against those who have reduced the human race into mere blips on a computer screen paired with a reminder of why it’s so crucial that we don’t lose ourselves in the midst of ever-increasing technological advances. It asks some big questions about whether all of this is good for us (her answer is a resounding no) and makes some statements about what it is that makes life worth living.


Musically, this is the biggest step in a different direction that Schneider has made since she released Concert in the Garden in 2005. Embracing a darkness that has been mostly absent from her music, a prominent role for electronic sounds that we haven’t heard from her since the 90s, and at times a freer approach that goes beyond anything she’s done in the past.


The band, which has always maintained a good amount of continuity, retains many of the key players from 2015’s The Thompson Fields, with a couple of new voices; Mike Rodriguez and Nadje Noordhuis on trumpet, Jonathan Blake on drums, and a prominent return for guitarist Ben Monder (who had been on every Schneider release up until The Thompson Fields).


Split into two halves, which Schneider dubs “The Digital World” and “The Natural World,” the album starts with the bad news, so to speak. Schneider’s detailed liner notes (like The Thompson Fields, this CD comes in a stunning physical package) make her thoughts very clear what each of these pieces represent, and from the start, she has a lot to say. “A World Lost” laments the lack of creativity in children inspired by boredom, due to overuse of electronic devices designed to keep us constantly but shallowly entertained.


This music is foreboding and utterly negative. It’s almost new territory, as we are used to the joyful and beautiful sounds that Schneider has produced over the years. But those who follow her advocacy for music creators' rights in a digital hellscape should not be surprised by the bitterness that presents here, and throughout the first half of this album. Monder’s distorted guitar sound, which takes on a major role right from the start, exists as perhaps a representation for that technological world. Rich Perry’s unique and crucial voice, which has always been a little melancholic, takes over partway through the piece, and the insistent, minor sounds make it feel like a funeral march.


Lamentation turns to sarcastic anger in “Don’t Be Evil,” an absolute thrashing of Google’s board’s motto. In her words: “I’m not sure what’s more alarming: that they set the bar so low, or that they would fail to reach that most minimal aspiration.” Trumpets mockingly play excerpts from Taps throughout the piece (with a major role for longtime bass trombonist George Flynn), giving way to an angry rhythmic ostinato (more out of the playbook from someone like Darcy James Argue, whose moody big band writing seems present in this piece) over which Ryan Keberle plays a masterful trombone solo.


“CQ CQ, Is Anybody There?” features a really interesting backstory (which you’ll have to purchase the album to read about) and features extended use of Morse Code, with instruments literally calling out cries for help into a mysterious and lonely cloud of noise. Donny McCaslin weaves his way through this bizarre landscape before handing off to an inhuman sounding Greg Gisbert on trumpet with electronics.


On “Sputnik,” we get a brief reprieve from the frightening territory we’ve been covering, and instead enter the arena of sci-fi wonder. Tension still exists here, but a calm and beautiful short chord progression moves steadily skyward as Scott Robinson’s baritone sax, a voice crucial to Schneider’s orchestra over many years, dances around the band, beeping and sliding as if making the mechanical noises associated with the spacecraft itself.


The Digital World ends with the title track, “Data Lords,” an ambitious and awe-inspiring work with truly frightening notes; the piece speaks of the singularity, which Google thinks will be cool, and which Stephen Hawking thinks could be the end of mankind. Schneider’s beautiful harmonic concept and total mastery of orchestration are on full display, through the lens of an apocalyptic theory. Mike Rodriguez’s first recorded trumpet solo with this band, tinged with delay, starts in a fairly bright place, as if technology seems good and cool, but quickly reaches a point where it is beyond our control. Dave Pietro takes over as the soloist in an environment of uncertainty, before the band reaches a major climax - the moment of singularity? - and fades out completely, closing the book on the first half of the album.


Our palette cleanser is the stunning “Sanzenin,” named after a Buddhist temple outside of Kyoto. A meditative call for simplicity, with a delayed, Sufjan-Stevens-esque keyboard sound hiding behind everything, as if it’s the ghost of the technological world that one tries to leave behind when visiting this spiritual place.


What follows is a surprising twist - the five-plus minute “Stone Song” that barely features the band, instead letting soprano saxophonist Steve Wilson and the band’s rhythm section take over. This is another advance in a new direction for Schneider. The piece still has strong harmony, but is rhythmically free throughout, almost a sketch of an idea that became a piece of music unlike anything else Schneider has ever recorded.


With “Look Up,” we’ve finally returned to territory that feels in keeping with the band’s previous three albums, a trombone feature (Marshall Gilkes) that feels like an adventure, like many of her previous major pieces (“Coming About,” “The Pretty Road,” “Cerulean Skies”). Gilkes gets a lot of space here, and the piece feels especially uplifting after what we’ve been through to this point.


“Braided Together” is based off a poem by Ted Kooser, who wrote the poems which became Schneider’s song cycle Winter Morning Walks, recorded with Dawn Upshaw and the Australian Chamber Orchestra in 2012. The piece, just four minutes long, feels rooted in simplicity, like the brief poem it’s inspired by. But like the poem, it holds deep levels of meaning and mastery beneath its surface.


Steve Wilson, on alto saxophone this time, is the dominant voice on “Bluebird,” a piece that returns to comfortable territory for Schneider, music inspired by birds. Moments in this piece remind me of the piece “Concert in the Garden” from the 2005 album of the same name, with some similar active harmonic movement and a prevalent role for accordionist Gary Versace, who was a main focus in that piece.


The album closes again with Ted Kooser, this time with one of of the pieces that was originally written for Upshaw. (Another piece from that song cycle, “Walking by Flashlight,” opened The Thompson Fields.) This one leaves us with an uplifting “back to nature” message - something welcome after all the darkness throughout the first half of this album. Few musicians are able to project sunlight as well as Donny McCaslin.


After three consecutive albums that projected the awe and natural wonder of the Earth and the beautiful things within, Schneider cannot any longer ignore those digital forces that threaten that world and the people in it. We see that here with an angsty, frightening musical landscape on the first half of the album. On the second half, Schneider kindly reminds us what we’re fighting for. She herself has taken another step forward on this album, showing that she can expand into territory that we haven’t heard much of from her, while connecting to past projects (there are more moments that immediately reminded me of her 90s albums on this record than the past three combined). It’s exciting to see her continue to reinvent herself, while staying true to the concepts that got her to where she is.


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