Album Review: Data Lords by Maria Schneider Orchestra

The ‘political’ jazz concept album has a rich history, taking in Max Roach’s We Insist! and Charlie Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra through to Sonny Rollins’ more recent Global Warming and Darcy James Argue’s Real Enemies, amongst many more.

But multi-award-winning composer/arranger Maria Schneider’s latest collection and critical smash Data Lords could hardly be more timely, what with most of the world currently stuck at home and streaming music.

It’s an angry album, a warning shot, contrasting the grim present/future of surveillance capitalism/algorithmic dread with the beauty and wonder of the natural world. (Aligned with the album concept is Schneider’s outspoken stance on the meagre royalty payments of streaming platforms.)

Data Lords was most jazz critics’ 2020 Record Of The Year. It’s a double album, and much of it is an exceptionally difficult listen, challenging, dense and forbidding, mainly using the tropes of modern ‘rock’, without a single bar of swinging 4/4.

But Schneider’s orchestra features soloists of the calibre of Donny McCaslin, Steve Wilson, Ryan Keberle, Ben Monder and (sadly, recently-departed) Frank Kimbrough. The mixing and mastering are pristine, the music is remarkably ‘present’. And the packaging (by illustrator Aaron Hockley and graphic designer Cheri Dorr, sadly neither mentioned in the official press release) is extraordinary, with extended liner notes by Schneider herself, sumptuous photography and even some poetry. It’s a beautiful job.

Disc one is titled ‘The Digital World’. Opener ‘A World Lost’ is a brooding rock-tinged instrumental, very informed by Schneider’s work with David Bowie (in a recent Jazzwise interview, she credits him with inspiring her to embrace her dark side), essentially a feature for Monder’s gnarly, incredibly Bill Frisell-like guitar. ‘Don’t Be Evil’ mixes Messiaen chords with some impressive trombone work from Keberle and a ‘noir’/spooky texture – according to Schneider’s sleevenotes, it’s a very conscious pastiche, reflecting the perceived irony of Google’s credo that informs the tune’s title.

‘CQ CQ Is Anybody There’ features some muscular McCaslin tenor but it’s fairly leaden and heavy going. ‘Sputnik’ is pure Bowie, with a soupcon of Scott Walker’s Tilt, using some chord movements similar to Arvo Part’s ‘Fratres’, but Scott Robinson’s baritone sax is no substitute for Bowie’s vocals. ‘Data Lords’ uses brass in a highly original, rhythmic, ‘buffeting’ way I’d never heard before, but again it’s a seriously abrasive sound, and the tune is mainly a fairly unsubtle investigation of various modes.

Disc two is titled ‘Our Natural World’, and it’s a huge improvement on the first disc. Opener ‘Sanzenin’ features remarkable accordion solo by Gary Versace over more ‘rock’ chords – again it’s more Radiohead than Gil Evans. ‘Stone Song’ is more whimsical with a touch of Wayne Shorter’s soundworld, ditto ‘Look Up’, the latter showcasing some striking trombone work from Marshall Gilkes.

‘Bluebird’ is the most cohesive track of the set, a subtle, through-composed ensemble piece with effective tension/release and another great accordion solo over speedy chord changes. ‘The Sun Waited For Me’ makes for a pretty, affecting conclusion to the album.

Surprise, surprise: you won’t find Data Lords on streaming platforms – it’s available only via the ArtistShare crowdfunding platform. It’s a vital addition to the jazz concept album, an ambitious, worthwhile project and a cause worth supporting.

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