- Pretzel Logic—Steely Dan
- Woody’s Winners—Woody Herman
- Center Stage—Steve Gadd
- Data Lords—Maria Schneider
- Our Natural World—Maria Schneider
- Allégresse—Maria Schneider
- Live at Sin-é—Jeff Buckley
- 1969: Velvet Underground Live with Lou Reed—Lou Reed
- Fargo 1940—Duke Ellington
- Focus—Stan Getz
It’s June, and I’m in Birdland in New York City, for the third time in a week, waiting to see the Maria Schneider Orchestra, also for the third time in a week. It’s not quite true to say that I see Maria Schneider whenever I get the chance—she’s playing ten shows this week, five early, five late, so I’m missing seven of them—but when she’s playing a residency, I go more than once. The shows are never the same, and the music is so complex anyway that you’re never going to get to the bottom of it. Schneider is a composer and conductor whose music is somewhere between jazz and contemporary classical, and whose band consists of some of the best jazz musicians the United States has to offer. They don’t play together regularly, and it’s too expensive to ship them all to Europe (although I have seen her conduct European bands). These shows are big events in my cultural life.
Maybe there were little clues buried in my past that told me I would one day fall in love with big-band jazz. When I played Steely Dan’s Pretzel Logic, I never once skipped the band’s cover of “East St. Louis Toodle-Oo,” even though it is a Duke Ellington song, albeit hardly a big-band rendition: Walter Becker imitated the trumpet through a voice box, and there was a pedal steel where a trombone should have been. And my love for Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes was never more intense than when the Jukes’ horn section got close to what I would one day appreciate as Basie’s punch.
But even so, I couldn’t have anticipated that I’d one day bury myself in big-band music: Ellington and Count Basie, but also Woody Herman and Jimmy Heath, Marty Paich and Miles Davis’s stuff with Gil Evans, Quincy Jones, and Gerald Wilson. It hasn’t replaced Phoebe Bridgers or Jason Isbell or Lana Del Rey. I’m not one of those jazz fans who suddenly realizes that all rock and roll, or whatever you want to call it, is unsophisticated. In fact, “23 Red,” say, from Herman’s live album Woody’s Winners, gives me the same kind of thrill that punk rock used to provide. There’s a riff, and then the trumpeters let loose with a rapier-like set of controlled slashes. When the rest of the horns join in to egg them on with a sneaky, funky chart, they effectively set the Basin Street West jazz club, where the album was recorded, on fire. You can even hear a member of the audience let out a loud whistle, the kind that involves fingers, either because he’s trying to express his excitement or because he’s attempting to call the emergency service.
There’s that kind of big-band music, and there’s the Ellington kind, with its impossibly sophisticated charts and its rich, often melancholy colors, and there’s the funky kind—the drummer Steve Gadd made an album with the WDR Big Band that features covers of “Signed, Sealed, Delivered” and “I Can’t Turn You Loose.” There’s something for everyone, and I can guarantee that if you like any kind of popular music, you’ll find a big band for yourself.
I discovered Schneider because I was trying to find out who played with a large group here and now—as opposed to there and then, in the decades immediately before and after the Second World War—and the Grammy nominations were an unlikely and invaluable source of new big-band jazz. There are ninety-four Grammy categories, as you may or may not know, and one of them is the award for Best Large Jazz Ensemble Album. (The Steve Gadd album referred to above, Center Stage, was nominated in 2023.) Schneider has won seven Grammys in total—basically, she wins every time she puts out a record. One of her Grammys was for “Sue (or in a Season of Crime),” a collaboration with David Bowie—he was a fan too. The Maria Schneider Orchestra wasn’t the big-band jazz I was looking for when I started poring over the Grammy small print, but it turned out to be the big-band jazz I needed: by turns modern, enthralling, complex, deeply moving.
There’s a little bit you can listen to on Spotify, but Schneider is fighting a resolute battle against big tech. She wants us to pay for our music, so you can buy it properly only with proper money, as opposed to a subscription. Her last album, Data Lords, was a double album, with one set of dark, scary pieces about the power and control we have ceded to companies who have only their own interests at heart; it feels like a soundtrack to the Upside Down in Stranger Things. The other CD is Our Natural World. It’s benign and beautiful, and, in “Stone Song,” incorporates a piece of sculptural art that was played at the Birdland shows. (At a previous residency, Schneider, a Central Park bird-watcher, provided several members of the audience with little wooden bird whistles.) I would never recommend my own work to you, but I would like to point you in the direction of a podcast I made with Schneider before the pandemic, for BOMB magazine. I was there only to get her to talk about her journey from Windom, Minnesota, a one-horse village, to writing charts for Gil Evans, and I managed that much, at least.
In Philip Glass’s great memoir, Words Without Music, he describes how his father, who ran a small record store in Baltimore, would bring home contemporary classical records that never sold (the lack of sales cost him money) in order to understand why his customers hated them; young Philip sat on the stairs absorbing them in a different spirit, and a very particular career was born. Schneider was taught piano by a retired music teacher who had come to live in Windom. The woman, who was equally at home with Rachmaninoff and stride piano, insisted on teaching little Maria music theory before she was allowed to begin lessons: another very particular career was born. Oh, there’s one more element: her father was required to pilot small planes so he could fly to nearby flax fields. Music theory, the jazz-classical hybrid, that above-the-ground-among-the-birds perspective… We know we’re the sum of our parts, but it’s rare that you can see these parts given glorious expression.
The Birdland shows were, predictably, a joy, as they always are. You can choose where to focus your concentration, both visually and aurally, with a big band. You can spend a few minutes studying that horn section right there, just feet from your ears. (Maybe I should rephrase that: just a couple of yards from your ears. “Feet from your ears” sounds too weird. I’m trying to get you to imagine a concert, and all I give you is an unhelpful surrealist painting.) There’s the apparently languid but superbly focused drummer, the accordionist, the guitar player, and Maria Schneider herself. There’s no place for her on Birdland’s tiny stage, and she frequently sits on the floor next to it, a beatific smile on her face, to listen to her soloists; when she’s on her feet, she conducts compellingly with her hands and arms, apparently pulling and squeezing out tempo. The long pieces go all over the place, just as proper classical music does; this is as close as I’m going to get to classical music, I know now, but it’ll do me. Perhaps I will convert, on my deathbed, just in case God really does prefer Bach and Beethoven to Drive-By Truckers and D’Angelo. (For how long do I have to listen to Bach to prove to Him that I’m serious? A couple of hours? The timing will be crucial.) But if He can’t hear that the beautiful, thrilling “Hang Gliding,” from Schneider’s 2000 album Allégresse, is a tribute to Him and His works, then He needs to get over Himself.
Birdland holds a couple hundred people, so you can’t be too far away from the stage, and the tickets were something like forty dollars, and Schneider is literally the best in the world at what she does; if you’ve recently paid a couple hundred bucks to watch some megastar on a screen at the, I don’t know, the Sour Cream and Chive Pringles Arena, or the Walgreens Generic Zyrtec Stadium, I can only beg you to reexamine your cultural choices. The only downside to the great New York jazz clubs, and places like Ronnie Scott’s in London, is that they are catnip to tourists: people think they have to go, at some point in their lives, and if they can attend only when Maria Schneider is performing, then so be it. This shouldn’t bother me. They don’t behave badly. They sit quietly and listen. But I would still prefer a system in which admittance is gained through written examination rather than first come, first served. Nothing rigorous—thirty short quiz questions followed by an essay—but enough to weed out the riffraff.
I have been thinking recently about how some of the most famous live recordings ever made were enjoyed by a very small number of people. The applause you can hear on Jeff Buckley’s Live at Sin-é, the singer’s first-ever release, was made by thirty or forty pairs of hands. The Village Vanguard—Bill Evans and Coltrane were among many artists whose shows there eventually became some of the greatest jazz albums of all time—has a capacity of one hundred and twenty-three. 1969: Velvet Underground Live with Lou Reed was recorded at the Matrix in San Francisco (capacity one hundred) and at the End of Cole Ave., a club in Dallas (capacity unknown, but as the premises are now a restaurant, and nobody in Dallas would have known who the Velvets were back then, it’s fair to assume there weren’t thousands there, or even scores). My favorite big-band live recording is Ellington’s Fargo 1940, the only one of the Duke’s incredible Blanton-Webster band; two fans plonked a clunky recording device on the nightclub table in front of them, and forty years later won a Grammy for it.
Live music—live music in small, sweaty places—was what I missed most during the pandemic. I would have predicted that it would be live sports, but guess what? When hundreds of thousands of people are getting sick and dying, I needed no extra reason to be miserable. Music only ever makes me happy, unless I want it to make me angry or sad. I never want football to make me angry or sad, but it happens anyway. My team lets me down. When football did come back during lockdown, it was doubly dismal, because it was without the crowds, the very thing that gives it any meaning in the first place. Pro sports nearly died during the pandemic, at least in the UK; music, however, seemed to build up a head of steam. Artists made records, put little performances online, and created an apparently insatiable hunger for the live experience.
The feeling of a room lifting off as musicians lock in with one another and the audience is so precious that I can’t believe concerts used to happen without me before COVID. I am trying to make sure that doesn’t happen again. That week in New York City I saw the three shows at Birdland, a Ben Folds show at the Beacon, and a surprise full-band Santana show after a screening of the new (and very good) documentary at the Tribeca Festival. At the Juan-les-Pins jazz festival in France, I saw a young musical genius, North London’s own Jacob Collier; a wonderful, uproarious French funk band called Deluxe; and the ubiquitous Chic, Angélique Kidjo, Branford Marsalis, and Brad Mehldau. Just last week I saw HAIM play to a deliriously devoted crowd in London. And last night, I didn’t go to see the Unthanks, the English folk band whose relationship to traditional music is not dissimilar to Maria Schneider’s to jazz. I didn’t go, because I had COVID, which kind of brings us full circle. I’ll be back in action later in the week, if I test negative. Nubya Garcia is performing Stan Getz’s Focus album in London. I’m never not going again.