Although they have been around for decades and are world-renowned, this was the Maria Schneider Orchestra, and it would be an understatement to say that the group made a good first impression. With the diminutive conductor out front, the 18-member band soared through a single long set of Schneider originals that never lagged, consistently exploring new instrumental combinations and ravishing arrangements. Schneider’s music frequently elicits comparisons to the great composer/arranger Gil Evans, but she’s broader than that; there’s Duke Ellington in the mix, as well, and Charles Mingus, all delivered with a distinctive touch that is hers alone.
The band is full of fireballs, from alto sax Steve Wilson, who shone on “Nimbus,” to accordionist Gary Versace, who provided both nimble solos and subtle drones that gave the music a deeper, more complex texture. Two compositions were drawn from commissions Schneider wrote for the great soprano Dawn Upshaw to sing, derived from settings of poems by Ted Kooser. For these instrumental arrangements, Schneider read the poems beforehand and then let the musicians loose on her brilliant, airy themes.
One of the best solos of the night came from tenor man Donny McCaslin, who had good reason to celebrate — he was awarded five Grammys this year as leader of the group that backed David Bowie on his magnificent final album, Blackstar. The stretching of musical boundaries peaked during Schneider’s recent Library of Congress commission, a work titled “Data Lords” after Schneider’s personal nemesis, the corporate figures she feels have exploited artists by using their music to profit on listeners’ data. You had to be there to hear it, as Schneider’s music will not be showing up on YouTube or Spotify anytime soon.