Jazz ballet: Maria Schneider Orchestra’s “Pas de Deux”


Maria Schneider loves birds. They come through in her airy, fluttering jazz compositions. These songs are rich with insinuating horn layers, tinkling piano keys, and drumwork that’s as shimmering as it is fleet-footed. Percussion plays a major role in her Cuban jazz-influenced pieces but the drums used are usually higher-register—cymbals, snares, rimshots, woodblocks, often hit with brushes rather than sticks—rather than the muscular, low-toned booms of bass drums and tom-toms. The lower, more muscular, registers are there, sure, but they rarely dominate a Schneider piece. The tunes often invoke the wind rustling leaves, and twitters and echoes in the background sound like squawking sparrows, flapping wings, and beaks pecking at the ground. (“Cerulean Skies,” off 2007’s magnificent Sky Blue, begins with the music emerging from two minutes of bird calls, and settles back into them at the end.) The horns are always clean and smooth—the saxophones rarely honk or shriek; the trombones rarely slur, even at full force. As befits someone who watches the skies for colors and birds, Schneider’s light and soft flutes and clarinets as mixed as loudly as the trumpets. She conducts her music to be as uncluttered as possible, given that there are 17 musicians in her ensemble.

In Schneider’s early career, a relatively common (and fair) complaint was that her compositions were superficially beautiful and multi-layered but lacked depth. Certainly, the high-toned percussion meant that Schneider’s orchestra rarely stomped or got its hands dirty. Her two latest studio albums, 2004’s Concert in the Garden and Sky Blue, are gorgeous but I wouldn’t call them raucous. Considering that Schneider leads a full-scale jazz orchestra, a type of band that more or less went out of style by 1950, it’s surprising how little danceable swing there is in her music. Days of Wine and Roses, recorded live at the Jazz Standard in 2000, is a significant exception, which may mean that she’s more comfortable letting her hair down at a club than in the studio. Still, Days lacks a lot of wild abandon; I enjoy it immensely, but I always have a sense of where the music’s going.

The most recent compositions have a melancholy to match Schneider’s ever-present lyricism. The featherweight gets dusted with sobriety, and her pieces have gotten longer and more expansive. They ebb and flow, gently, into separate movements, and leitmotifs are introduced and reinforced. The aforementioned “Cerulean Skies” is 22 minutes, with multiple, nearly discrete segments. Concert in the Garden’s title track and the closing “Bulería, Soleá y Rumba” feature improvised solos—as does everything I’ve heard by the Jazz Orchestra—but the structures are dense. If most big-band jazz wants to tell a quick story, tightly focused and punchy, Schneider’s orchestral works tell meandering novels that wander into odd digressions.

Though Schneider draws heavily from Afro-Cuban jazz, especially in her percussion arrangements, she’s less interested in settling into a groove than making it evolve into epic movements. She’s mostly rid herself of the blues influence in her jazz, and certainly the toe-tapping element is long-gone. The Maria Schneider Orchestra is a minor symphony orchestra, at this point, rather than a dance band drawing from the traditions of 1920 New Orleans stomp or the orchestras of the late 1930s and early 1940s.

Or perhaps we’re looking at her accomplishments all wrong. Schneider’s compositions always leave room for her musicians to solo. While the traditional, brassy swing is muted in Schneider’s music, it’s certainly rhythmic and individual segments of songs are often quite danceable. Her arrangements don’t include strings at all. Maria Schneider’s music is jazz through and through.

Rather than conceiving the jazz orchestra as a dance band for the audience, I think Schneider considers her compositions as better-suited for the dancers onstage. It’s not meant to inspire mass Lindy-hopping. Instead, Schneider’s dance tunes work best for couples or single bodies in motion.

The best example I can give is Concert’s “Pas de Deux,” the second of a three-part sequence entitled “Three Romances.” (See what I mean about the classical element to her compositions?) It’s the best piece Schneider’s written, romantic, erotic, and melancholy.

The ballet term means that simply a dance involving a couple. In “Pas de Deux,” we begin with Ingrid Jensen’s flugelhorn introducing the simple overriding theme, accompanied only by Frank Kimbrough’s piano at first and then by a minor horn surge. It’s a sexy, sinuous theme. Then Charles Pillow repeats the theme, on soprano saxophone. The background surge rises—a drummer snaps, once, on a triangle; brushes sweep across snare drums. After this, the full band soars into flight but the theme’s only being repeated by Kimbrough’s piano. The soloists Jensen and Pillow, the pas de deux’s couple, are already starting to tease and flirt with each other, moving beyond the melody and becoming more baldly passionate than Schneider’s conducting usually allows.

“Pas de Deux” swings slowly, but note that the bounce is buoyed by the horns rather than the traditional bass and drums. Jensen and Pillow each get another crack at the main theme before they take over the song. Even as Jensen is soloing, Pillow is responding and fluttering around, and vice versa. The orchestra behind them vamps a one-two, one-two rhythm that’s tonally lower and more subdued than the couple. Trumpets and trombones create a white-noise hum in the background. As Pillow and Jensen get faster and more muscular, so do the drums, and so ultimately does the rest of the band.

Around 5:15, the orchestra’s decided to reflect the climax of Jensen and Pillow’s pairing. This is the brassiest and full-throated a Schneider composition’s appeared but, even through the melodic rush and symbolic orgasm, Jensen and Pillow swirl around each other’s riffs, shrill and high-pitched and frenzied. The duo’s in harmony with each other and in key with the rest of the band, despite being so distinct from it at this moment. The piece rushes headlong into a symbolic orgasm and, at 7:24, they’re spent. Things grow quiet. The full orchestra’s one-two secondary theme becomes dominant for a moment.

At 7:54, Jensen starts up the main theme again under the same spare arrangement as at the beginning, but with a crucial difference. Now Pillow’s right there with her, not quite paralleling her reiteration of the theme but winding his supple playing around it. He plays less notes, sustaining them longer than Jensen does, but they wind up at the same place. It ends, oddly, without either of them, on Kimbrough’s solitary and lonely notes that rise higher and higher. It’s as if they’re still more to climb—the closure is thrillingly incomplete. (Indeed it does. The piece immediately segues into the solo piano opening of “Three Romances”’ third song, “Dança Illusória.”)

“Pas de Deux” shows a couple working things out onstage, and coming together for one sizzling, hot moment. Even though it doesn’t last—it can’t last—it creates enough electricity to keep us enthralled even after the rush is gone.

About Walter Biggins

Walter Biggins is a writer based in Atlanta, GA. He is the co-author (with Daniel Couch) of Bob Mould's Workbook (Bloomsbury, 2017). His work has been published in The Quarterly Conversation, RogerEbert.com, Bookslut (RIP), The Comics Journal, The Baseball Chronicle, and other periodicals. Twitter: @walter_biggins.
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