Saturday, February 01, 2014

Maria Schneider: Bright Star of Jazz and (now) Classical

Maria Schneider
I first came to know the work of composer/band leader Maria Schneider through her remarkable big band, made all the more remarkable by her at times "symphonic" scoring. No, don't think Ellington, or expect the Maria Schneider Big Band to sound like the Sauter-Finegan Orchestra. It's more akin to the various bands written for by Miles Davis' favorite arranger, Gil Evans. And there's a good explanation for this. Maria Schneider admires the work of Gil Evans. In fact, I'm told she took a job at a New York City copy shop which she knew was frequented by Gil Evans so she might have the opportunity to see up close his scores, to try to analyze how he did what he did. What Gil Evans did was write for a big band more as an orchestra than a traditional ensemble of trumpets, trombones, saxes and rhythm section. For the famous sessions with Miles Davis ("Porgy and Bess" and "Sketches of Spain" especially), Evans called in a quartet of French horns and additional percussion and woodwinds. But more importantly, Evans created exquisite orchestrations and breathtaking instrumental voicings, taking a cue from the orchestral palette of the Impressionist School of Classical Music.

Maria Schneider got her chance to study even more intently the work of Gil Evans when he invited her to work as his assistant. Although this close apprenticeship would only last a year, or so, Maria learned her lessons well, finding that the key to Gil Evans genius was his enthusiasm for trying something new. She brings this same inventive spirit into the scoring and composing she does for her own band, and this is some of what has set her apart, winning for her two Grammys as a jazz composer and big band leader.

Maria Schneider's early musical education was a mixture of serendipity and tradition. Her first piano teacher, an accomplished stride pianist who had retired from Chicago to tiny Windom, Minnesota, Maria's hometown, infected Maria with a love of music. Maria says that it was then, as a young child, she made up her mind to become a musician. There was no turning back. She attended the University of Minnesota, studying the traditional classical music curriculum but always with an eagerness to experiment outside the more or less strict boundaries of "legit" music. Her composition teacher, one who according to Maria taught in the Hindemith tradition, encouraged her to hang out around the university's jazz band. The rest, one might say, is now history.

But wait! Through all her success as a jazz composer and experimenter, she had never written for an orchestra, that is to say an ensemble of strings, woodwinds, brass and percussion. So when she got the opportunity to collaborate with soprano Dawn Upshaw, she took it. It was not without its risks. Maria admits that even when she is in the comfortable environment of writing for her big band, she has moments of insecurity and doubts. These elements were certainly there as she and Upshaw undertook first a song cycle called “Carlos Drummond de Andrade Stories." This was composed to a commission by the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra. To the delight of Schneider and Upshaw, the collaboration worked. Perhaps even more delighted was Schneider's father, who immediately encouraged another collaboration. This came to life three years later with a commission from the Australian Chamber Orchestra. The resulting cycle, "Winter Morning Walks," was the composition which recently won for Maria Schneider a Grammy for Best Contemporary Classical Composition. The album, published as "Winter Morning Walks" and also containing the "Drummond Stories," won two other Grammys, one for Best Solo Vocal Performance and the other for Best Engineered, Classical.

I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Maria twice in May of 2013, just as "Winter Morning Walks" had released. The second interview, in Austin where she was conducting a program of her jazz compositions with the University of Texas Jazz Orchestra, had the benefit of video. This enables one to not only hear Maria's responses to my questions, but also to witness her animated enthusiasm for music, her music, and her defense of The Artist (and the innovative and independent ArtistShare initiative). The half hour interview splits nicely into three segments, and that is how they are presented here.

Part I: Classical, Jazz, or Does It Matter?

Part II: In Praise of Hindemith (Here Maria reveals her admiration for the music of Hindemith, then names her other two "desert island" composers.)

Part III: In Defense of the Artist

Contributed by James Baker

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