Maria Schneider helps shape new musical landscape for big jazz bands

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“Sometimes it feels funny that I’m a musician because I’m a more visual person and I translate that into music a lot.” — Jazz composer-bandleader Maria Schneider

25 Jan 2018 |ROGER LEVESQUE | Edmonton Journal

“When Maria Schneider travels to perform her music with jazz ensembles around the world, she always sends the musician’s charts weeks ahead, as she has for her concert date with the Edmonton Jazz Orchestra next week.

“I send them ahead because if the musicians don’t get past the logistical stuff and notes and everything, you can’t get to all the elements that make the music transcend. It’s not just the written notes. A lot of my pieces are evocative of experiences like hang gliding, almost like stories.”

In a word, that’s what hits you about Schneider’s sounds. Like all great art, her pieces transcend the banalities of life even when they celebrate the simple touchstones of everyday experience.

This driven New Yorker didn’t set out to change the contemporary jazz landscape. She was just writing what she knew.

“I’ve never tried to wear some other hat to become something. Even when my music has touches of Brazil or influences of flamenco, it came from just loving and listening to that music for so long that it started to seep into my writing by osmosis.”

Nowhere is this better exemplified than on the Maria Schneider Orchestra’s last release, The Thompson Fields (2015), a brilliant canvas inspired by the American heartland and the pastoral Minnesota setting she grew up in.

“It is about what you grow up with. I was in Minnesota listening to (Aaron) Copeland, and had a stride piano teacher. I was listening to classical and my parents had a lot of world music, so it was a broad palette. When I started writing for big band, I didn’t have this historical responsibility that a lot of jazz musicians do. I’m from a small town and an open landscape and my music reflects that. It has elements of swing here and there, but that’s not the foundation of my music.”

Since she started her orchestra over 25 years ago, Schneider has re-defined what a jazz big band could be, offering a rare vision of tone colours, melodic imagery and sonic space that’s bright, beautiful, graceful and expansive, soaring beyond jazz itself.

“The band’s evolution has been an almost glacially slow improvisation; I put my music out there and the musicians come back with a way of playing and phrasing, soloing, decorating and developing that slowly influences me. If I had 18 different musicians, I would be writing different music because we influence each other. A lot of them have been in the band a long time, but some changes have been good for me, too, because they punch me into a new direction.”

Schneider’s artistic trajectory was already touched by greatness before her recordings picked up five Grammy Awards. Following her college studies, she started out as a copyist, only to be mentored by two giants of large ensemble jazz, Gil (Sketches of Spain) Evans, and Bob Brookmeyer.

“One of the biggest lessons I learned was, ‘Write what you know,’ because the two of them were so uniquely themselves and I realized, ‘I need to find my own voice.’ In order to do that, it’s not something you decide, but you have a band and it emerges. They inspired me to find my own way. Bob inspired me to write long-form music, like a journey or a DNA structure. With Gil it was more technical, about transparency, space, nuance and expression, delicate things and beauty.”

In turn, she has nursed the careers of rising stars such as Donny McCaslin and Ingrid Jensen in her band. When funds can’t support sending in her band, Schneider flies in to workshop her tunes with ensembles around the globe (nearly 90 ensembles in 30 countries), as she will here next Wednesday.

She’s looking forward to working with the Edmonton Jazz Orchestra.

“It’s fun when you work with a new band. You encounter new creative voices and a new rhythm section and everything takes a different direction. It’s always unique for me, so I really enjoy doing it.”

Notable collaborations of recent years hint at her versatility and the respect Schneider enjoys in disparate music worlds. Working with David Bowie on the extended single Sue (Or in a Season of Crime) in 2016 took the late rocker’s song forms as far out as they’ve ever been. The session also introduced Bowie to his final bandleader, saxophonist McCaslin.

Schneider admits not all of Bowie’s fans were ready for such a relatively abstract tune.

“David said when our collaboration came out, ‘I really expected 50 per cent of people to hate it, 25 per cent to love it, and 25 per cent to accept it because it’s Bowie.’ But in the end, the response he got was that about 50 per cent loved it and only 25 per cent hated it. He was happy with that. I think his final album Blackstar was absolutely spectacular, one of the finest things he did.”

A more recent suite created for classical singer Dawn Upshaw called Winter Morning Walks has confounded notions of contemporary art song, picking up three Grammys on its own.

Since Schneider’s orchestra started subverting traditional notions of large jazz ensembles with her 1994 debut Evanescence, seven striking presentations have caught the ear of both critics and fans. This writer’s experience of the MSO at the Montreal Jazz Festival in 2009 was a highlight of that event.

Facing the changing winds of the music business and new systems for music’s digital distribution has made Schneider a fierce fighter for public awareness and the “Artist’s Share” — the name of the artist’s co-operative that issues her recordings.

She has testified before Congress, appeared on CNN, and was preparing for a panel discussion on such matters as property rights the day of our conversation. Questioning how music is accessed on YouTube, Spotify and other services, she speaks to a bigger question of corporate control.

“Just like the tobacco companies, these corporations have studied what’s addictive because they want you at their site so they can collect data on people. That’s where the money and the power is. That’s the goal. What you give up for that is all your private information. Sadly, the record companies have dragged musicians into this because they have teamed up with Big Data.”

She says she’s “starting to have hope.”

“Most people haven’t seemed to care, but I think they’re starting to wake up with shows like Black Mirror. People are getting fed up with certain aspects of Facebook, and the last (U.S.) election was a wake-up call to how we’re being influenced by algorithms on the internet. Cracks are starting to show in this shiny veneer and even young people are starting to rebel against that.”

Beside the beauty of her music, all this inspired Schneider to write a piece called Data Lords, and she says her next recording will be “kinda dark,” admitting, “The influence of David Bowie cannot be discounted in that.” Her biggest concern is finding time to write and arrange between the demands of concerts and clinics.

“I’m more of a person who sits down and feels what comes. When I arrive at something I really like, I’ll find myself almost daydreaming as if the music is almost a film score to it. Sometimes it feels funny that I’m a musician, because I’m a more visual person and I translate that into music a lot.”

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