Monday, April 28, 2014

Maria Schneider's Classical Jazz: No Boundaries

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

The editorial staff at JazzProfiles delights in discovering new writings that provide additional perspectives on the music of some of its favorite artists and sharing excerpts from them with its readers.

Such is the case with the following pieces on Maria Schneider by Zachary Woolfe as published in The New York Times and the essay on Maria that follows it which was written by the Books and Arts staff of the The Economist and published it in its March 8th-14th, 2014 edition of that distinguished magazine

© -Zachary Woolfe and The New York Times, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“For a long time, big-band jazz relied on a swinging but implacable wall of brass: the sound of Count Basie, Benny Goodman and Duke Ellington. Schneider absorbed what she calls that “frontal load of decibels and power and energy,” and she has never abandoned it completely. But the music she began composing when she moved to New York in the late 1980s took on a different character.

‘I got tired of the big band being these three primary colors: the trumpets, the trombones, the saxes,’ [Maria Schneider] said. Schneider wanted the muscle and precision you get with 15 or 20 loud instruments, and she wanted the backbone of improvisation that is fundamental to jazz. But she was also drawn to the colors of the orchestra: shifting, ethereal prisms out of Ravel and Debussy. …  ‘My pieces, many of them, at least the newer things, are through-composed like classical music,’ she said. ‘They go through different sections, so the soloist has to bring the piece from here to there. It’s not ‘This is my solo, I’m going to show you everything I know about the instrument,’ which most big-band music is: kind of an ego show for each soloist. In mine they have to carry the piece and tell the story.’

In a way, Schneider has been trying to reconcile invention and rigor since childhood. Her first piano teacher happened to be a raucous stride pianist who exposed Schneider to the virtuosity of Art Tatum, along with the expected Chopin ├ętudes. Though Schneider studied classical composition at the University of Minnesota, she turned increasingly back to jazz.

After graduate work at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, she moved to New York and began working as a copyist, churning out instrumental parts from orchestral scores. It was through a copying gig that she met and started working as an assistant to Gil Evans, who was Miles Davis’s arranger of choice in the glory days of Birth of the Cool and Sketches of Spain. Evans was a revelation. He would regularly bring in instruments that weren’t part of the big-band palette — French horns, flutes, oboes — and his writing willfully stretched the abilities of his players.

‘Gil wanted me to re orchestrate one of his pieces for big band,’ Schneider recalled. ‘I was in my 20s and feeling completely out of my league. And one day I came in with what I wrote, and he was horrified. He said: “No, no, no. I want these low instruments at the top of their range so they’re uncomfortable. And these high instruments at the bottom of their range.” He wanted people playing completely at their opposite range at struggling points in the music. And then it was just, Oh, my God, that’s the stuff you can’t learn. That’s the stuff that comes from a personality searching for his own inner world.’

At night, she composed her own music for a band she started with the trombonist John Fedchock, a classmate at Eastman. (She married Fedchock too, but both the marriage and that first band dissolved after a few years.) Following the lead of Evans, she tweaked her band to include various winds. She also played with orchestration, so that a fluegelhorn might share a melody line with a trombone and a bass flute, making an alluring blend of brassy and smooth. ‘I started mixing people, mixing the colors,’ she said, ‘so when you listen to it, it might sound like a French horn — and there’s no French horn in the band.’

Back in the early 1990s, Schneider’s band played a weekly residency at a club in Greenwich Village. Every Monday for five years, she loaded all the music stands and the scores into a cab and packed them up again at the end of the night for the ride back to her one-bedroom apartment on the Upper West Side. The members of the band each got $25; she would pay herself $15. “Every week it was a logistical hell,” she said. “I don’t know how I had the energy for that. You’re different when you’re younger. You just take it somehow.”

She worked for years to flesh out the orchestral elements in her style of jazz, through her debut, Evanescence (1994), a combination of brassiness and lightness; Allegresse (2000), with its Brazilian accents; and her 2004 masterpiece, Concert in the Garden, whose pieces have the sweep and drama of tone poems. But what she had not done until recently was write for an actual orchestra, with its full complement of strings and its lack of improvisation. It was not long after Concert in the Garden that she met the soprano Dawn Upshaw, who came to prominence singing Mozart at the Metropolitan Opera in the 1980s and emerged as a bold advocate for contemporary music. Upshaw had gotten in the habit of attending Schneider’s band’s annual Thanksgiving-week performances at the Jazz Standard in Manhattan.

‘It was about the third year that I was there when I thought to myself, Wow, I wonder if she would ever consider writing anything for me.’ Upshaw said. ‘I know that our worlds don’t collide typically, but what would happen if we tried to do something together?’ Schneider had never incorporated lyrics before, and Upshaw sensed she was anxious. ‘But she was game,’ she added. ‘And it’s one of the best musical experiences that I’ve ever had.’

The relaxed, seductive ‘Carlos Drummond de Andrade Stories,’ which Upshaw sang with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra in 2008, was the first product of the collaboration. Three years later there was Winter Morning Walks, settings of the poetry of Ted Kooser. This was a more daring combination, with the Australian Chamber Orchestra playing the score as written, as members of her band improvised.”
- Zachary Woolfe, The New York Times, April 12, 2013
[Winter Morning Walks would go on to win three Grammys in 2013].

© -The Economist, copyright protected; all rights reserved.


A daring composer defies categories.

“A SNUG one-bedroom flat near Manhattan's Central Park serves as home and studio to Maria Schneider, composer and bandleader. Her sister's abstract oils adorn the walls, and pots and pans hang from the ceiling of a tiny kitchen space that could fit in a cupboard. Her prized possession, a 29-year-old Yamaha upright piano, dominates the living room. When Ms Schneider composes, the idea for a new song can come to her in a flash. Or she can struggle for months to weave together a work worth performing.

‘It can happen just when you're hitting your head against the wall because you can't come up with a solution,’ she says. ‘Then it can happen in the middle of the night when you're … just sitting there and sitting there and sitting there.’

The agony and the eventual ecstasy of Ms Schneider's woodshedding sessions have yielded music that has altered the notion of what a modern jazz band can sound like. When her 19-member Maria Schneider Jazz Orchestra appears at New York's Jazz at Lincoln Centre later this month, the audience can expect to hear works that defy categorisation. One moment, the group can be freewheeling and jazzy. A song or two later, it glides with ease through Ravel- or Chopin-like movements. Then a chamber-music-style duet can seize the spotlight while the rest of the musicians sit in silence.

Ms Schneider's daring compositions have helped her to elbow her way onto the list of jazz's finest living composers. In 2012 the influential annual poll of critics in DownBeat, a jazz magazine, bestowed upon Ms Schneider triple-treat status as the genre's best big-band leader, arranger and composer. Those who have knocked on her door requesting commissioned works include the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association and the Danish Radio Orchestra. Among the oddest non-musical requests came from a wine producer in Germany who asked her to select the grapes for a wine that now bears her name - the Reichsrat von Buhl Maria Schneider Jazz Riesling.

Ms Schneider stunned the classical music world in January, when her 2013 recording, Winter Morning Walks, won three Grammy Awards, including one for best contemporary classical composition. The project set verse from a collection by Ted Kooser, a former poet laureate in America, to music. The poems, from "Winter Morning Walks: 100 Post Cards to Jim Harrison", document his reflections on life and nature while he was recovering from cancer treatment.

Ms Schneider and the Iowa-born Mr Kooser are both Midwesterners, and from adjoining states. Like the poet, Ms Schneider has also had cancer. To interpret the verses musically, the composer pinned two dozen of the poems she liked most above her piano and brainstormed melodies. In one, "Walking by Flashlight", she found images and reflections that were less about cancer and more about nature:

Walking by flashlight
at six in the morning
my circle of light on the gravel
swinging side to side, coyote, raccoon,
field mouse, sparrow each watching from darkness this man with the moon on a leash.

Ms Schneider's journey to band leader began in the tiny farm town of Windom, Minnesota. A local music teacher, Evelyn Butler, introduced her to the piano when she was five years old. By the age of eight, she had written her first song.
Becoming an instrumentalist, though, did not seem to be in the stars. She tried her hand at the clarinet, and was a "horrible" violin player. She also struggled as a youngster to play trills on the piano. ‘I'm not a performer,’ Ms Schneider says.
‘That's just not the animal that I am.’

After studying music at the University of Minnesota and the Eastman School of Music, she decided that band leading and composing were her calling. She moved to New York and became an assistant to Gil Evans, who had arranged music for some of Miles Davis's recordings. At the same time, she was seeking ways to create her own voice and vision for an orchestra. Evanescence (1994) showcases her skill at writing gorgeous melodies for horns and shifting moody harmonies.

Ms Schneider also went her own way when she dumped the traditional record labels and signed on with ArtistShare, a New York-based digital-record label that distributes its music only on the internet. A record label usually foots the bill for the recording's cost and takes the lion's share of its profits. Instead, Ms Schneider raises the money from fans in exchange for giving them a behind-the-scenes view of the recording process or a credit as a producer. She made history when a 2004 recording, Concert in the Garden, became the first digital download-only CD to win a Grammy award.

Ms Schneider's first priority is making music that moves her listeners, though attracting more donors for her recordings would help. Winter Morning Walks cost about $200,000 to produce, which is pricey by jazz standards. ‘The only thing I'm concerned about is whether the listeners are brought out of their worries, and if the music reminds them how beautiful life can be,’ Ms Schneider says. ‘It's a tall order.’

Spectacle movies have been a part of all ages and phases of Hollywood film productions. Unfortunately, the music scores written for many of these blockbusters sound as though they should be accompanying Armageddon. Imagine my delight then when I first heard Alex North’s exceptionally beautiful love theme which he composed and orchestrated for the 1960 movie extravaganza, Spartacus.

Such delight was even more enhanced when pianist Bill Evans recorded The Love Theme from Spartacus as part of his 1963 Verve LP Conversations with Myself, an album that is particularly noteworthy for Bill’s ingenious use of multi tracking.

In his definitive biography Bill Evans: How My Heart Sings, Peter Pettinger observes: “A number of the tunes [on Conversations with Myself] started with brief atmospheric introductions, colored by delicate, pointillistic rippling. This was Evans the orchestrator at work, thinking perhaps of the pianissimo flutes, clarinets and harps of Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloe. A good example of this was the ruminatory Love Theme from Spartacus.

Forty years later in 2003, similar observations might made about Maria Schneider’s arrangement of North’s compelling and radiant melody which she performed with The Metropole Orchestra Big Band [sans strings] at the Bimhuis in Amsterdam in 2003 and which forms the soundtrack to the following video tribute to Maria and the Metropole Orkest.

1 comment:

  1. Many thanks for reproducing these articles. I saw Maria recently in Tampa, FL., at the University of South Florida. She participated in an afternoon panel discussion and in the evening conducted the USFJazz Ensemble which also added to my appreciation and understanding of Maria's music.


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