|Maria Schneider with one of her Grammy Awards.|
The Minnesota native, honed by close associations with Gil Evans and Bob Brookmeyer in early adulthood, was a guest of Butler University's jazz program this week, capped by a concert appearance Wednesday night at the Schrott Center.
She led the Butler Jazz Ensemble, a big band under the direction of Matt Pivec, at a concert that was preceded by a wide-ranging conversation with Rich Dole. a trombonist and teacher who was to provide a vital professional voice on bass trombone at the concert. That's where the interest in bird-watching was addressed with enthusiasm.
Dole's musical contribution came during a performance of "Bird Count," an up-tempo blues with which Schneider said she used to conclude Monday night performances by her orchestra at Visiones in New York City. The Butler student musicians gave a good account of the piece, with the patented Schneider slip-sliding harmonies and section glinting off section as the catchy theme and related choruses churned along. It was up to Dole to take the final plunge into the bass-trombone basement at the end, and he made it thrilling.
To start things off in the Schneider segment of the program, there was the aggressive "Dance You Monster to My Soft Song," titled after a Paul Klee painting that captivated the composer many years ago. The delightfully prickly piece brought forth barbed splendor from the band; particularly spicy were the drumming of T.J. Schaff and a muttering electric bass solo by Isaac Beaumont.
Schaff was impressive as the drummer in another 1994 Schneider composition, "Green Piece," and seemed particularly responsive behind Sam Turley's tenor saxophone solo. The performance also featured a well-judged piano solo by Michael Melbardis.
The best extended solo was contributed by Zack Weiler on baritone saxophone, who made a poignant showcase for his instrument and for Schneider's reflective side on "Walking by Flashlight," an instrumental version of Schneider's setting of a Ted Kooser poem, which the guest artist read before the performance. That was the most recent (2013) Schneider composition, and made for an effective contrast to a second 1994 "monster" piece that preceded it, "Wyrgly," which featured outstanding solos by tenor saxophonist Eric Wistreich and Jake Small's buzzing, roaring, wailing rock-inflected guitar.
The whole set of five pieces, whose renditions drew lavish praise from Schneider, gave ample evidence of her qualities as both composer and teacher. Her music tests developing ensembles and provides encouraging settings for student soloists learning to make their way distinctively. "I give people interesting things to play in solos that will carry the piece to an interesting place," is the way she put it in her chat with Dole.
Before Schneider's entrance, Pivec guided a peppy old-school flag-waver by Fletcher Henderson, popularized by the Benny Goodman band 80 years ago, called "Wrappin' It Up." That followed brief sets by two student small groups sketching in classics from other eras: Charlie Parker's "Yardbird Suite" and "Billie's Bounce," Benny Golson's "Stablemates," and Roy Hargrove's "Strasbourg-St. Denis." Giving an extra measure of professional polish and energy to their performances was veteran Indianapolis saxophonist Rob Dixon.