Andrei Strizek

pianist - music director - writer - etc

Thoughts after seeing the Maria Schneider Orchestra

Some non-analytical, off-the-cuff thoughts after seeing Maria Schneider and her eponymous orchestra perform at Birdland on June 4th, celebrating the release of her new album The Thompson Fields.

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Image via Texas Public Radio

Image via Texas Public Radio

I’ve been a fan of Maria Schneider for … 15 years? Probably closer to 20, now that I think about it. My dad introduced me to her after he got Coming About. As usual, it took me a little while to latch on to her style and to understand what she was doing. (I was in early high school at this time, trying to learn as much about music as possible, but my ears were much more inclined to hard boppers like Horace Silver and late 50s Miles Davis or Count Basie and Duke Ellington than Maria Schneider.)

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Can we talk about how she won a Grammy for Concert In the Garden, how that album was completely crowd-funded - one of the first jazz albums to do so, and a trend-setter in that regard - and lead to a successful record label that's almost completely crowd-funded?

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My favorite piece of her’s depends on when you ask me. Sometimes it’s “Hang Gliding.” Others, it’s “The ‘Pretty’ Road.” Or “Cerulean Skies.” Or “Bulería, Soleá Y Rumba.” You catch my drift.

But there are moments in songs that give me chills or make me want to jump up and down with glee whenever I hear them:

  • The reed parts in “Dança Ilusória,” particularly after the trombone solo, around the 6:30 mark.
  • The “Rumba” in “Bulería, Soleá Y Rumba,” which modulates its melody up by a minor 3rd as it progresses.
  • The alternating 3/2 and 12/8 feel in the “Bulería” portion of “Bulería, Soleá Y Rumba.” Steve Reich used a similar idea in the last movement of his “Electric Counterpoint,” and there’s something about that shifting of beats - even though the number of eighth notes stays consistent - that gets inside me in the best way possible.
  • The part after Ingrid Jensen’s solo in “The ‘Pretty’ Road,” that is the epitome of Maria Schneider: dense harmonies, mixed orchestrations, melodies on top of and handed off to various sections, long lines supported by vibrant countermelodies …
  • The backgrounds behind the tenor solo, and then coming out of that solo, in “Hang Gliding.” And its 11/8 meter.
  • Frequent moments when she has sustained tones supported by angular countermelodies.

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I can say that my favorite album is Concert In the Garden, but I also love Sky Blue and The Thompson Fields immensely. I think I wore out Concert In the Garden the summer of 2005, playing it in my car and at home almost non-stop. I can sing any and all lines on that album, if you ask me nicely.

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The set list from when I saw the band was a mix of old and new:

  • “Dance You Monster To My Soft Song”
  • “A Potter’s Song”
  • “Gumba Blue”
  • “Lembrança”
  • “The Thompson Fields” (about “everything that’s beautiful about being from a small town in the Midwest”)
  • “Arbiter’s of Evolution” - with the tricky beginning where you have no idea what the time signature is, and then you realize it’s been 4/4 the entire time and you exclaim, “What?!”

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She has filled her band with some of the best musicians around, each one a superb soloist and excellent ensemble player.

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Scott Robinson is the only person who can make the alto clarinet sound good. (Check out “Walking By Flashlight” from her new album.)

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Scott Robinson came to my high school once or twice, with Frank Mantooth’s big band. (Mantooth wass another superb composer and arranger, who’s untimely death left a void in the jazz world.) Robinson wasn’t on Mantooth’s Sophisticated Ladies album, but he took the bari solos while at SPHS, and sounded incredible (obviously). One of these times was also when I had dinner with baritone Kevin Mahogany, sitting in a home ec room, eating spaghetti made by band moms.

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I think that her being from the Midwest (southern Minnesota) has not only affected her sensibilities - she has the air of being one of the most pleasant and down to earth people ever, and that’s saying a lot because so much of the jazz world shares her humility and humor - but also the quiet beauty of her music. It’s not forceful or brash; it has that false simplicity, an impression of effortlessness, that gives way to a relentless energy and drive - sometimes it’s apparent and sometimes it’s simmering just below the surface.

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Schneider looks like a painter when she conducts, brushing broad strokes on the canvas of her band.

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No, better yet: she looks like a dancer. Those who say contemporary jazz is not danceable need to watch Schneider lead her band.

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When you see her live, you can see the look on her face during the bass solo of “Lembrança.” Appreciation. Pride. Trust. Gratitude. To have that feeling while hearing your music performed must be incredible.

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She is beautiful. Her music is beautiful.

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She’s not the first to use an non-standard instrumentation with a big band, but, in my opinion, she orchestrates better than most anyone else out there. (Even, dare I say, better than Gil Evans and Bob Brookmeyer, two of her mentors.) Especially since she started adding wordless vocals as another instrument in her band. Alto flute, alto clarinet, oboe, accordion … She makes her big band sound like a full-fledged chamber orchestra.

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Make sure to listen to Winter Morning Walks if you want to hear her music performed by an actual chamber orchestra (and sung superbly by Dawn Upshaw).

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I am not a composer. I have no real desire to be one. But if I were, she would be one of my role models. I would consider myself lucky if I could write 4 bars as good as she does.

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I love that her band is still thriving. They started seemingly eons ago, performing Monday nights in New York, which turned out to be a great workshop for her new arrangements and compositions. She's a slow writer, compared to some other contemporary composers, so we're not always blessed with a new album or live performances. I think that makes me cherish a new album or concert even more than usual.

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If you haven't heard any Maria Schneider, remedy that as soon as possible. Then send me a message and let me know what you think!

May 2015 in review

  • Living on Love at the Longacre Theatre (5/2/15)
  • Doctor Zhivago at the Broadway Theatre (5/9/15)
  • Zorba! at City Center Encores! (5/10/15)
  • Darcy James Argue's Secret Society at The Bell House (5/10/15)
  • Fred Hersch & Brad Mehldau at The Jazz Standard (5/19/15)
  • The Lion King at the Minskoff Theatre (5/22/15)
  • John Rutter and the New England Symphonic Ensemble at Carnegie Hall (5/25/15)
  • Songs From An Unmade Bed at SubCulture (5/26/15)
  • The Drama Desk Awards at Town Hall (5/31/15)

Movies (3):

  • Atari: Game Over (5/23)
  • Stripped (5/24)
  • Grand Piano (5/29)

Other miscellany:

Cast Album Review: "James and the Giant Peach"

Another review is up, this one a bit belated: James and the Giant Peach, by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (book by Timothy Allen McDonald).

I've played a lot of Pasek and Paul songs over the years. Most of them have been from Edges, their first musical (a revue of sorts, written while they were still in college). I've enjoyed playing those songs, but always felt they got a little long-winded. When I first heard Dogfight I thought, "YES! These guys get it. They know how to write for the theatre." There is a light year's of difference between Edges and Dogfight. You can still hear their voices, but they're more mature, more developed, more sophisticated.

When I first heard JATGP, I got excited again. I truly believe that Pasek and Paul are the best of the younger songwriting generation. Their songs have clear form, smart lyrics (with no awkward rhyming, something some current Broadway shows should try), and - as vague as this word is - honesty.

JATGP is written for younger audiences and - in some versions available to license - for younger performers, but Pasek and Paul didn't write down for younger people. The songs are not easy (listen to "Middle of a Moment" for a hint). I'm hoping I'll get the opportunity to see a production of this soon.

James and the Giant Peach is a FREE download, and the cast album has a ton of Broadway stars. Check out my full review at CastAlbums.org, and download the album.

 

Cast Album Review: "Two's Company"

I have a new review posted over at CastAlbums.orgTwo's Company, a 1952 revue starring Bette Davis. It's a pleasant album, but one that definitely shows its age (and demonstrates how much Bette Davis was not a singer).

I applaud efforts to remaster, restore, and release albums of shows that have been forgotten. Will this be a big seller? No. Will it likely just end up in the collections of the most die-hard fans? Yes. But that's better than it being left by the wayside and ignored.

This album also shows two things that are still readily seen on Broadway today: one, that a team of creatives at their prime, with a solid track record of success, might not always produce a great musical; two, that even shows that were popular in their time can be forgotten as the years go on. What is popular today might easily fade away in five years, only to be remembered by the most enthusiastic of fans.

April 2015 in review

Live performances (11):

  • Wolf Hall, parts 1 and 2 at the Winter Garden (4/1/15)
  • The Audience at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre (4/7/15)
  • An American in Paris at the Palace Theatre (4/8/15)
  • Skylight at the Golden Theatre (4/10/15)
  • Ernani at the Met (4/11/15)
  • Fun Home at Circle in the Square (4/14/15)
  • Something Rotten! at the St. James Theatre (4/16/15)
  • Band Geeks at Red Mountain Cabaret (Birmingham, AL) (4/18/15)
  • Living on Love at the Longacre Theatre (4/21/15)
  • Airline Highway at the Friedman Theatre (4/24/15)
  • The King & I at the Vivian Beaumont Theatre (4/28/15)

Movies (4):

  • Love Is Strange  (4/7)
  • The Perks of Being a Wallflower (4/10)
  • The Book of Life (4/10)
  • The Muppets (4/11)

Album Review: "Stages" by Josh Groban

My review of Josh Groban's seventh album Stages, devoted exclusively to musical theatre music, is up on CastAlbums.org. Spoiler alert: I wasn't a fan of the album, mostly because each song blurred into the next. The album needs more variety in its arrangements.

Also, this was my first review to garner a comment! Someone disagreed with my take on the album, but glancing through other reviews on the Internet, I'm not too surprised: I seem to have written one of the few less-than-positive reviews out there.

I wish Groban would have been a little more adventurous in his programming and arrangements. He has proven his artistry and developed a fan base; now would be the perfect time for him to vary his routine. Anyone who follows Groban on Twitter or has seen his talk show appearances knows that he has a sense of humor and lively personality. I miss that on this album. A little humor or wit could have made the entire project stronger.

Cast Album Review: "Tamar of the River"

I've started writing album reviews for CastAlbums.org. My first piece was on Tamar of the River, an off-Broadway show written by Marisa Michelson & Joshua H. Cohen and featuring Margo Seibert. It's a beautiful postmodern score, unlike most other cast albums you'll hear. As I wrote, its clear the composer owes a debt to Meredith Monk, and this work would find a comfortable home in a Roomful of Teeth program, but it's also quite original in its writing.

Side note: About a week after this was published, I got a Facebook notification from a friend. I was mentioned in a comment after Maria Michelson found this review and posted it. Her reaction was positive, as were the comments of her friends (some of whom had worked on the show in some capacity or another). It's weird to know that the creators read my review (not that I expected them to ignore it if they came upon it); it's difficult to write if you think that the composer is looking over your shoulder, reading what you write. But it made me feel good to know that my review was read, respected, appreciated, and shared.

Stay tuned for more reviews - I have a few albums coming down the line, and I'll share them here when they're published.

March 2015 in review

  • Disgraced final performance at the Lyceum Theatre (3/1/15)
  • Keith Jarrett (solo) at Carnegie Hall (3/3/15)
  • The Light In the Piazza at Manhattan Marymount College (3/6/15)
  • Hedwig and the Angry Inch at the Belasco Theatre (3/10/15)
  • In Need of Music: The Songs of Ben Toth - Lincoln Center's American Songbook Series at the Kaplan Penthouse (3/11/15)
  • The Heidi Chronicles at the Music Box Theatre (3/12/15)
  • Molly Pope Likes Your Status cabaret at the Duplex (3/13/15)
  • Into the Woods at the Laura Pels Theatre (3/14/15)
  • Lea Salonga in Concert at Town Hall (3/14/15)
  • Emerson Sings cabaret at the Laurie Beechman Theatre (3/23/15)
  • On the Twentieth Century at the American Airlines Theatre (3/24/15)
  • The Visit first preview at the Lyceum Theatre (3/26/15)
  • Hand to God at the Booth Theatre (3/28/15)
  • Hunchback of Notre-Dame at the Paper Mill Playhouse (3/28/15)
  • The Lion final performance at the Lynn Redgrave Theatre (3/29/15)

Other miscellany:

February 2015 in review

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Live performances (14):

  • Ryan Scott Oliver at 54 Below (2/2/15)
  • Lady, Be Good! at City Center Encores (2/7/15)
  • "So This Is Love," Broadway Barkada's annual Valentine's Day concert, at The Cutting Room, at which I also arranged and performed on one song (2/8/15)
  • I Am, I Will, I Do, three readings of a new musical at Shetler Studios, for which I did music prep & copy/engraving work (2/9-10/15)
  • Taping of The Late Show with David Letterman at the Ed Sullivan Theatre (2/11/15)
  • San Fermin with the Metropolis Ensemble, at the Appel Room (Lincoln Center's American Songbook Series) (2/12/15)
  • John & Jen at the Clurman Theatre (2/13/15)
  • Big Love at the Signature Theatre (2/14/15)
  • Horseplay: or, The Fickle Mistress, A Protean Picaresque at La Mama (2/14/15)
  • Parade in Concert at Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center (2/16/15)
  • The Iceman Cometh at BAM's Harvey Theatre (2/17/15)
  • Novus NY, et al, at Carnegie Hall: Ives's Symphony No. 4,  & Ginastera's Turbae ad Passionem Gregorianam, Op. 43, at Carnegie Hall (2/21/15)
  • Beautiful: The Carole King Musical at the Stephen Sondheim Theatre (2/24/15)
  • Constellations at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre (2/27/15)

Movies (1):

  • The Last Five Years

Other miscellany:

The dress is white and gold.

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