Schneider, Neve & the JMO

Sydney Festival, January 22

City Recital Hall

Maria res
Photo: Prudence Upton

As if commanded from on high, jazz big bands all consist of five reeds, four trumpets, four trombones, piano, guitar, bass and drums. The many hundreds of other instruments be damned. Given this ossification it is little wonder that composing for the idiom has largely stagnated – Maria Schneider, apart.

Schneider is not only an oddity for specialising in composing for big bands just as they are becoming scarce, but she also dares to break with the convention of using the horns as sectional blocks of sound, preferring to think like a genuine orchestrator. Alas she only directed Sydney’s Jazzgroove Mothership Orchestra for the second half of this concert.

As with her New York band the standard line-up was augmented by piano accordion, here played by the brilliant Marcello Maio. Few instruments can colour an ensemble as emphatically as an accordion, and in Schneider’s Choro Dancado it was pivotal in conjuring the charm of old-world Brazil, which, in turn, beckoned a svelte tenor saxophone solo from Roger Manins. Later in the piece came a moment of classic Schneider: soft – but not muted – trumpets against piano; a fleeting pigment barely glimpsed.

Many of her works are programmatic to some degree. During a gorgeous rubato opening to The Thompson Fields (for guitar, piano, bass, drums and accordion) one could almost see the wind blowing through the prairie’s crops and grasses, and when the horns joined the sense of space was miraculously preserved. Hang Gliding included a Simon Ferenci flugelhorn solo that floated and soared, before Richard Maegraith’s agitated tenor suggested that the descent may not have been so serene. Walking By Flashlight had a loping, slow-gait groove, and pretty soprano saxophone from David Theak, but an early Schneider composition, Gumba Blue, laboured under the big-band conventions, and showed how far she has come conceptually.

The first half featured the JMO with the accomplished, effervescent Belgian pianist Jef Neve, whose comparatively insubstantial work was strengthened by Phil Stack’s superlative bass playing.