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Music Review: Maria Schneider Orchestra – Sky Blue

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Grammy-Winning composer Maria Schneider has had an exceptional career thus far, experiencing massive acclaim while remaining outside of the normal recording industry. Schneider won a Grammy for her 2004 album Concert in the Garden, a feat made all the more incredible because the recording wasn’t distributed in stores. Instead, the award was directly influenced by Schneider’s fans and through the support on her website as powered by ArtistShare.

Even more exciting is that Schneider’s music is gaining accolades through online distribution and her music is fan funded. ArtistShare works through micropayments, allowing fans to literally fund the music and finance the artists they love. Schneider is one of the most successful artists working in the ArtistShare system and is distinctively in tune with the future of the recording industry. ArtistShare also ensures that its artists are compensated for their work before it is released, making it a unique alternative to an often cold industry.

On the heels of her past success, Schneider is set to release Sky Blue, the extraordinary follow-up to Concert in the Garden. The album is a gift to her fans and was heavily influenced by what her audience meant to her, especially in terms of the letters and emails she received in support of her previous work.

With Sky Blue, Schneider works against record company trends again and provides the album with stunning packaging. When other record companies release albums with sparse packaging to cut costs, ArtistShare artists tend to do the opposite. In the case of Sky Blue, the album is accompanied by two gorgeous and extensive booklets that detail the making of the recording and Schneider’s broad liner notes. The booklets are wonderful to peruse while listening to the music.

Maria Schneider is a composer, first and foremost, and she enjoys pushing the boundaries of music. In demand as a bandleader, she frequently tours the world conducting bands in full-length concerts featuring her music. Schneider’s first love is composition and it shows on Sky Blue, as four of the five works were commissioned pieces. This is unique because the pieces all came from presenters requesting works for her orchestra to be premiered at their concert halls. Schneider notes that this experience allows her to write something special: “It’s my favorite way to be commissioned. My own musicians are the ones I know best. And what I found is that I felt compelled to really feature them.”

The first track on is “The ‘Pretty’ Road,” a charming welcoming track that features Ingrid Jensen on fluegelhorn. The track is beguiling and resembles somewhat of a road trip through the hills. Schneider’s extensive liner notes highlight her thoughts on the song, but the track’s universal and gracious appeal allow for varying interpretations. Jensen’s solo is tremendous, too.

Following that is “Aires de Lando,” a punchy track based on the Peruvian rhythms. Schneider discusses the perplexing cadence of the tune in the liner notes for those aware of the time signatures and other musical nuances, but everyday listeners (such as me) will simply revel in the offbeat lively number and tap their feet. Scott Robinson’s clarinet highlights this piece.

The third track gears the tempo down and opens with an almost formal note. Titled “Rich’s Piece,” the song is intended as an opportunity to experience the meditation of sound. Designed exclusively for tenor saxophonist Rich Perry, the track is a wave of sound that envelops the listener. It is one of the most soothing tracks on the album and also one of the most enjoyable, as Perry’s saxophone lightly guides us through the gently textured composition.

“Cerulean Skies” is best experienced by taking Schneider’s hand and reading through the story of the composition in the liner notes. She outlines a story of birds in a forest, which transforms the song into a tapestry of visual effects and tempered sounds. Upon closing my eyes on a second listen to the tune, I was able to recall Schneider’s description and began to add visions of my own. Donny McCaslin’s tenor sax and Charles Pillow’s alto go beautifully with this, but Gary Versace’s accordion is what makes it especially unique. The recording of a cerulean warbler makes the tune even more special, as it highlights the close of the wonderful piece.

Finally, the album closes out with the title track, “Sky Blue.” Written in memory of a close friend who passed away, Schneider cites “Sky Blue” as one of her more relevant pieces. “When we play concerts, people really seem to relate to this piece,” she explains. It is a deeply personal song, but it is also universal in its appeal, which highlights the exceptional nature of Schneider’s compositions and the way in which she is able to deeply connect with her audience.

The discovery of Maria Schneider’s Sky Blue is something I think I will always cherish. The album now has a significant place in my collection and a place in my heart. The music is personal and broad, all at once, and Schneider’s compositions reflect the true emotion that music can bring. With pieces of music taking on an almost visual energy and Schneider’s amiable writings guiding the way, Sky Blue is an incredible album.

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