By Don Heckman
Maria Schneider, composer, bandleader, and avid birdwatcher, has followed one of the jazz world’s most unique creative pathways since she arrived in New York, fresh out of college, in the mid-‘80s. Although she studied and worked closely with Gil Evans, her composition style, from the beginning, has been her own. For years, she led her Maria Schneider Orchestra in regular Monday night appearances at Visiones jazz club in Greenwich Village. More recently, she has concentrated upon recordings and composition, for her orchestra, as well as via commissions for various ensembles and artists. Tomorrow night at the Ojai Music Festival’s Libbey Bowl, her Winter Morning Walks – a commission from the Festival, will be performed by Dawn Upshaw and the Australian Chamber Orchestra. She will also lead her Maria Schneider Orchestra in a program of her large ensemble jazz works. Last week we talked about the commission as well as the feelings and the philosophy that energize her creative efforts.
DH: I know you’ve worked with Dawn Upshaw before, Maria. But that was a cycle of songs in Portuguese based on poems by the Brazilian author Carlos Drummond de Andrade.” How different is this work?
MS: Well, one thing that’s very different is that I knew I wanted to some improvisation. Dawn said she couldn’t improvise, but I left some of the elements open so she could sing things in her own time. And the orchestra can follow her or take the lead. So hopefully it’s going to be very organic and very alive.
DH: And you’re also including some players from your Orchestra to improvise with the Australian musicians?
MS: Yes. Frank Kimbrough on piano, Jay Anderson on bass and Scott Robinson on alto clarinet and bass clarinet.
DH: And the other notable difference, I guess, is that the texts you’ve chosen are in English. How did you find them?
MS: They’re by poet Ted Kooser. He’s phenomenal. I connected with him because we’re both from the mid-West. And I totally connected with his mid-West imagery. There are nine different songs, all from his book of poetry called Winter Morning Walks. Some are just beautiful observances of the landscapes. Some are more inward. I loved them so much that I wish I could do five more of them. But the commission was for 25 minutes and I think it’s probably already 28.
DH: Any apprehensions about Saturday night’s performance?
MS: Well, there’s one aspect that could be tricky. I’m not conducting. I’m going to just sit in the audience and pray to God that they pick the right tempos, because I’m a control freak about that. If they do it too fast it’s going to be a torture for me. I’m going to want to jump out of my seat and shout ‘Slower!’ ‘Slow Down!’ But it’s the right way to do this piece, and I’m really excited about it.
DH: Composing works of this sort for ensembles characteristically associated with classical music is a big switch from writing for a large jazz ensemble. Has it been challenging?
MS: In the beginning, I approached it with real trepidation. It was a big leap for me. I was a little gun shy in the classical world from college, because in the ‘80s the music that was really accepted in that world was atonality. And that just wasn’t my way. I’m very tonally oriented. It’s the way I hear. Which is why I found my niche in the jazz world, which felt much more accepting of many different things, inviting of different worlds, different tastes.
DH: Yet you now have found a way to work creatively in that classical world.
MS: Yes, but you know, the classical world now seems to changing. They’re coming back. And now there’s a lot of people in the classical world prejudiced against atonality. What can I say? Skirts are up, skirts are down. Everything always seems to swing from one way to another.
DH: Premieres, whether classical or jazz, can be daunting, though, can’t they? New music, for both the players and the audiences. High expectations.
MS: It’s certainly true that premieres aren’t always the best performances. But sometimes there’s a magic in it. I remember when we first premiered a piece at Disney Concert Hall commissioned by the L.A. Philharmonic. And it had the kind of magic that you only get once in a performance. That was fun. But there’s no doubt that it’s better when everyone plays a piece together for a long period of time. Of course, to get to that point, you always have to go through those first performances.
DH: Well, actually, it’s really a kind of premiere situation every time you put a new piece of music in front of your own Orchestra. How does that work out?
MS: I actually find it really fascinating. When I first bring a piece of music to my band, they’re reading it. They’re great musicians and they read it correctly. But the music doesn’t come out yet. And I always think ‘Oh, my God, I’ve lost my touch, I’ve forgotten how to write.’ And the musicians, bless them, say no, they just need to learn it and to hear it. And it takes time — to have a conception of the sound body they’re trying to create and sort of slowly discover it. That’s when they’re finally hearing it and it comes alive.
DH: How does that feel to you – when the music finally comes alive. Especially when it’s coming alive before an audience?
MS: I feel like I’m giving a party when my band plays. That I’m like a really good host, with super guests invited both in the audience and on stage. And that I’m kind of setting the theme for them to interact with each other. And I love to watch how everyone in the mix appreciates each other and feeds off each other. Taking the music and making it their own — way, way beyond what I envisioned as I was writing it.
DH: One last question, Maria. When you finish up a commission like this, hear the music played and enjoy the applause, what is it that gives you the greatest pleasure?
MS: I think it’s the thought that I’ve persuaded people to dive into the meaning of the music. The life in the music. Sometimes I think that life gives more music than music gives music. And when it comes right down to it, music is how I express life.
DH: Thanks, Maria. Great talking with you.
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Maria Schneider with microphone photo by Tony Gieske.