Maria Schneider Orchestra peerless at Cadogan Hall

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No one in the jazz world writes music like Maria Schneider. It’s mercurial and richly evocative – full of stories, images and emotions that range from tenderness and nostalgic longing for the prairies of Minnesota, where she grew up, to frantic, barely-restrained aggression. Sometimes it sounds like Messiaen, at others like the work of Schneider’s great mentors, Gil Evans and Bob Brookmeyer, but more often than not the composer is in a musical world of her own.

Last night at Cadogan Hall, appearing in the UK for the first time in almost a decade, she invited us to explore that world – and to wonder at its beauty – guiding her jazz orchestra (in Schneider’s hands, the 18-piece ensemble is so subtle and varied to call it a big band would seem like an insult) through compositions from The Thompson Fields, her latest release.

‘A Potter’s Song’, a feature for Ron Oswanski’s accordion, was a gentle opener – all sweetness and light. As were ‘Home’ and the album’s title track, which played out like a miniature film score, full of sparkling, impressionistic piano and folky guitar. ‘Nimbus’ was darker and more brooding, with roughhousing drums, brass backings moving in like insidious weather fronts and melodies rippling through the orchestra, scattering and distorting like light on the surface of a pond. And ‘Dance You Monster To My Soft Song’, from Schneider’s debut release, Evanescence, was muscular and hard-grooving, with vicious trills in the trumpets and plenty of action for George Flynn on bass trombone.

Some of the orchestra have been with Schneider since 1988, through all her Grammy wins. They understand her music but they bring so much of their own personality to it as well and every feature felt distinct and in keeping with the spirit of that particular composition. ‘The Monarch and the Milkweed’ (one of the highlights of the set) brought controlled and sublimely lyrical solos for Greg Gisbert on flugelhorn and Marshall Gilkes on trombone, as the orchestra rose and fell behind them – outlining more peaks and troughs than a seismogram.

‘Arbiters of Evolution’, inspired by Schneider’s love for ornithology, cast Donny McCaslin as a lusty Bird of Paradise, locked in a desperate embrace with his tenor, mid courtship display, wooing the audience with thrusting lines and impassioned holds. Scott Robinson played his wonderfully decrepit, badly-molting counterpart, offering a slurpy, abstract baritone solo full of squealing altissimo.

Schneider, for her part, adds much to the performance and is wonderful to watch. She moves like a dancer and makes conducting look like some elegant martial art, swaying with the music then locking her arms (you can see the shock run through the muscles in her shoulders) and directing punches and kicks with brutal precision. There’s no question whose music this is or who’s in charge. We can’t let another decade go by before we see this peerless composer in the UK again.

– Thomas Rees @ThomasNRees