[JPL] Listening With | Maria Schneider

r durfee rdurfee2003 at yahoo.com
Mon Nov 20 13:31:30 EST 2006

November 17, 2006
Listening With | Maria Schneider
Keeping the Notes Dancing and Flying 
Clipped to the music desk of Maria Schneider’s upright
piano is a picture of the ballerina Sylvie Guillem.
Spread out all over it a few weeks ago were sketches
for a new composition, “Cerulean Skies,” for a
festival in Vienna programmed by Peter Sellars,
celebrating the 250th anniversary of Mozart’s birth. 

It is a piece about the migration of birds, and Ms.
Schneider has been struggling with it, trying to get
the right quality of motion. When she composes, she
often plays a sequence into a tape recorder, then gets
up to play it back, and moves around the room to the
phrases of the music, seeing how it feels when danced.
“It helps me figure out where things are, and what
needs to be longer,” she said. 

Much of Maria Schneider’s large- ensemble jazz of the
last six years has been nearly a figurative
description of long-flow movement, particularly
dancing or flying. And even when that’s not what it’s
really about — as it is in her piece “Hang Gliding” or
the various dances represented in her suite “Three
Romances” — that’s still, in a sense, what it’s really
about. In her Upper West Side apartment Ms. Schneider,
45, composes at the piano; onstage she stands and
conducts her band, which ranges from 17 to 20
musicians, and which will take up residence at Jazz
Standard next week. Judging herself a mediocre
pianist, she doesn’t play the instrument onstage; she
is one of the few well-known jazz composers who do not
perform with their own ensembles.

It is extremely unlikely in these times for a jazz
composer who isn’t also an instrumental star to keep a
17-piece band more or less intact for 13 years. But
she has managed it, through grants and ambitious
touring and, recently, an innovative system of
releasing recordings through the online label
ArtistShare, which treats customers as “members,”
allowing them not only to preorder her new music at
standard CD prices but, for a little more, to see how
its various parts are coming together, via
streaming-video updates. 

Both the open, flowing sound of Ms. Schneider’s music
and its hopeful, nearly naïve sense of possibility
make some sense when laid against the details of her
life. Ms. Schneider and her two sisters grew up in
rural southwest Minnesota, in an agricultural town
called Windom, 150 miles from Minneapolis. 

“We had all these big picture windows,” she said
recently, “and you’d look out the window and you’d see
nothin’.” She smiled. Ms. Schneider is blond and slim,
with large, deep-set eyes. When she talks about her
art, or about music that she likes, her dry voice
flushes and cracks, and she straightens her body and
moves her limbs to express something. 

“When your entertainment isn’t provided for you,” she
continued, “your life is full of fantasy.” As a girl
Ms. Schneider would play the piano and imagine that
New York talent scouts might be driving nearby in cars
with radio antennae that could pick up her music and
discover her. “So I was always on, prepared for one of
these talent scouts.” 

Her father designed machinery for processing flax, and
his company required him to get a pilot’s license so
he could fly to flax fields in Canada and North
Dakota. He kept his plane in a hangar behind the
family garage, and he would often take Ms. Schneider
flying with him. “When you’re in a small plane, and it
banks — when the plane goes like this?” She turned her
flat palm to a 90-degree angle. “The earth looked
perpendicular to the wing, and I used to look at the
earth and think that we were straight. I didn’t think
that we were tilted.”

Ms. Schneider learned something about musical motion
with Gil Evans, the great composer and arranger, who
died in 1988. After attending the Eastman School of
Music, She moved to New York and worked as his
assistant, copying scores, transcribing things,
helping Evans with arrangements. He never helped her
directly with her music — she didn’t presume to ask —
but she has since become, in a sense, his best-known
contemporary student. And her work has been frequently
compared to his, which, she says, suggests that people
don’t understand his work much. But it is an almost
inescapable conclusion: He is the precedent for her,
the Impressionism-influenced jazz composer who recused
himself as a pianist from some of his greatest work,
created his own sound colors and didn’t make typical
“big band” jazz. 

She put on “Concierto de Aranjuez,” from “Sketches of
Spain,” one of Evans’s collaborations with Miles
Davis. It starts with castanets and harp; then soft
orchestral lines move in for the theme, before Davis
enters, a minute into the piece. “Check this out,” she

Davis enters with a soft flourish, and the orchestra
goes into a kind of slow motion. “You know how Armani
knows how to dress a woman up and make her look just
incredible?” she asked. “Gil knew how to dress a
soloist and make that soloist so beautiful, you know?
So there’s all this fluttering — this movement, the
tuba’s playing these melodies, there’s all these
things going on — and when Miles enters, everything
stops.” As if stirring to life again, more lines form
after a minute, with curious crisscrossing momentum;
it sounds improvised, but it was all was precisely

Ms. Schneider once conducted the piece from a
transcription; then she did it again after Evans’s
original scores were found. She was amazed by the
difference. “I saw everything in them, and that’s when
I realized: It’s like a watch, where every little gear
attaches to something else. The music and the soloist
are an inseparable entity.”

What’s important to Ms. Schneider isn’t just standing
in front of a band and having it play her music, but
setting up structures for the improvisers so that
their phrasing becomes part of the music, which then
becomes part of her, so that it changes her subsequent
writing. (The bands of Duke Ellington and Count Basie
evolved in much the same way.) Certainly a similarly
trusting approach applies to her unusual new method of
making records. With a movie camera, or a digital
audio recorder, Ms. Schneider documents each stage of
a new piece of music, including recording sessions,
even problematic recording sessions. The video can be
streamed from her Web site, mariaschneider.com. 

This is quite an act of transparency for someone who
comes across as extremely anxious about the creative
process. But it seems to have worked: “Concert in the
Garden,” her latest record and her first with
ArtistShare, won a Grammy last year. She says the
process proves that a good piece can result from
unpromising beginnings. And she needs regular access
to that proof.

The turnaround moment for her band was her album
“Allegresse,” from 2000. Around that time her music
lost some of its academic stuffiness and its obsession
with vertical harmony. Part of this, she explains, was
a result of her having spent time in Brazil in 1998.
“I was going through tough times in my life,” she
said. “When we landed in Rio and I saw the landscape,
I knew my life was going to change.” 

She put on a track called “A Maldade Não Tem Fim,”
from an album by Velha Guarda da Portela, the dynastic
group formed by the elders of the Portela samba
school, which competes annually in Rio’s carnival.
It’s a lovely song, typical of its kind: trombone over
the mandolinlike cavaquinho and the tambourinelike
pandeiros; a male voice singing the verses scratchily,
a thunder of voices coming in on the chorus. 

“What I love in Brazilian music,” Ms. Schneider said,
“is that the way they’re singing is sustenance. It’s
not about making music either for entertainment or for
the conservatory — you know, music is here” — she
spread her hands apart — “and your life is here. Life
and music are one. The music I love is necessary for
life, for survival. 

“Flamenco: it makes living possible. Blues, and early
jazz: it made living possible. Samba is like alchemy.
It turns pain into joy, into magic. My music was very
intense and serious and very jazz, even though it was
influenced by classical music.” But after the trip to
Brazil, “my priorities changed,” she said. “I really
didn’t care if my music impressed anybody anymore, or
if it was complex.”

When she got home, she didn’t immediately start
writing in the style of samba. She began borrowing
rhythm, loosely, from the more jazz-influenced choro
style of Brazilian music. Later she moved toward
flamenco, with its 12/8 buleria rhythm. She has since
become obsessed with the accordion as a new voice in
her ensemble; to several pieces she has added a cajon,
the percussive wooden box of Peruvian music, and she
hasn’t written with swing rhythm since. 

She is still a jazz composer, by self-identification,
working with jazz improvisers. But the music is
pulling further away from any sort of conventional

“Sometimes I feel like, in the world of jazz, people
think that more chromaticism all the time is going to
make their music hipper,” she said disappointedly.
“It’s like, no. Music is a time-oriented art. So it’s
how you play a person’s attention through time. 

“I mean, here and there you’ll capture an experience
in jazz that just makes you go ....” She opened her
eyes wide and gasped. “But to me it happens less and
less, and I think that’s because musicians think they
have to keep playing more and more. Sometimes I leave
those clubs and come home and listen to Bach cello
suites. One line. Some space around one note. Or
nothing. Nothing for weeks on end.”

Finally she wanted — really wanted — to hear “Up — Up
and Away,” the hit by the Fifth Dimension, written by
Jimmy Webb. It entered her bloodstream when she was a
girl, she said. During the first lyric line (“Would
you like to ride in my beautiful balloon?”), Ms.
Schneider cocked a finger. 

“Now check this out,” she said. ”Modulation, up a
minor fifth. That’s the flying modulation. It’s all
over my new music.” She mentioned a few of her songs
that contained similar modulations: “Hang Gliding,”
“Coming About.”

“And now: up another minor third.” (The Fifth
Dimension was singing, “For we can flyyy ...”) “Now
it’s going down—let’s see — a major third. And you
hear the flutes?” (They appeared after the line “It
wears a nicer face in my beautiful balloon.”) “That’s
Gil Evans, I’m sorry.” (The influence is entirely
possible: the arrangements were by Marty Paich, a West
Coast jazz arranger and a contemporary of Evans.) 

She seemed self-conscious that she was praising an AM
radio tune from her childhood in terms that should be
reservied for Major Works of Art. But she raved:
“Jimmy Webb is a genius, I’m sorry. That tune
modulates six times, if not more. Ah. I get chills. Am
I crazy? Who could dare to write that? It modulates as
much as ‘Giant Steps’ does.” (She was referring to the
John Coltrane composition, of which she has written
her own inventive arrangement.) 

Motion, flying, nostalgia: it seems important, this
thing about flying in your father’s plane, I said, a
little embarrassed by the obviousness of the

To my surprise, she grew excited. “Maybe because of
the motion, the openness and the motion,” she said. “I
never thought about it.”

The Maria Schneider Jazz Orchestra will appear Tuesday
and Wednesday, and Nov. 24 and 26, at Jazz Standard,
116 East 27th Street, Manhattan, (212) 576-2232,
jazzstandard.net; cover, $30.


Roy Durfee
P.O. Box 40219
Albuquerque, New Mexico 87196-0219
rdurfee2003 at yahoo.com

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