Home     Content     Articles      La Scena Musicale     Search   

La Scena Musicale - Vol. 14, No. 8 May 2009

Maria Schneider: Composing with the Moment

by Marc Chénard / May 1, 2009

Version française...

Years ago, the late soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy was asked to respond in 15 seconds on the difference between composing and improvising. He told the interviewer, “In composition, you have all the time to write 15 seconds of music, in improvising, you only have 15 seconds.” While it is true that composing is not subject to the same immediacy as improvisation, writing music is not any easier.

Jazz dictionaries readily append the word ‘composer’ atop of all its musician entries by virtue of their inventing melodies as launching points for their improvisations. But there is a particular breed of jazz artist who pursues composition much further, to the point of foregoing public performances. Throughout its checkered history, Jazz has had its share of distinguished musical pens, the likes of Fletcher Henderson, Neil Hefti, Quincy Jones, Sammy Nestico and Bill Holman. In today’s modern American mainstream, there is no denying that Maria Schneider has established her place within this lineage.

Working for Gil, Studying with Bob

In 1994, Schneider got her first break with the release of a debut recording entitled “Evanescence” (issued by German indie Enja Records). Recorded two years earlier, the side contained nine originals performed by a 19-man Jazz orchestra under her name. Those in the know detected obvious influences in her writing, a tip-off being the title cut. Indeed, Gil Evans was singled out as an obvious influence, given her time as his assistant.

While working as music copyist, Schneider discussed her favourite composers with a composer friend. Although she first mentioned Bob Brookmeyer, she enthused more about Evans: “That evening, my friend called back to inform me that Gil happened to be his closest friend, and he needed an assistant to copy music for a rehearsal. I just called and that was it.”

From that initial assignment, the Old Master delegated more responsibilities to his youthful protégé, including transcriptions and re-orchestrations of his charts for several European radio orchestras. From that, he let her write some of the musical cues included in his score for the film ”The Color of Money” (whose main star was Sting). Schneider has fond memories of that period, though she admits to not being quite ready for the position, but it was in Evans’ nature to choose someone by intuition alone and to stand by them no matter what.

Schneider’s musical background was also rounded out by studies at the Eastman School of Music and then personal tutelage from noteworthy composer Bob Brookmeyer. “We became very close after that and have kept bouncing things off each other since. Gil and Bob are kind of opposites of each other,” she says. “Gil even told me once that he was kind of intimidated by Bob who, incidentally, was really flattered when I told him. Gil was always this kind of enigmatic character who everybody felt was floating in the clouds with the angels. His music is orchestrally intricate, which is not so much the case for Bob’s, because his deals more with larger forms, or big canvases to be covered in broad strokes. There are things that intrigue me in their musical conceptions, and I try to bring elements of each into my music.”

Turning Points

Like any musician searching for a voice, Maria Schneider’s development has been a gradual process. Her first attempt at starting a band dates back about 20 years, but a turning point may well have been an encounter with the late drummer Mel Lewis, a feisty character known for his lengthy tenure as helmsman of the Vanguard Jazz Orchestra. Schneider recalls having penned a chart for the band, but when she suggested the band up the tempo from what she had them do in rehearsal, the drummer was ticked off and said people were always playing music too fast, and he told her to just go start her own band.

In the ensuing 17 years, much has changed in Schneider’s life. While her discography is modest, six records to date, each new release garners more praise from the specialized press and greater attention from the wider audience. In 2005, she and her orchestra pulled off quite a coup when her album “Concert in the Garden” earned the Grammy for best jazz album, all the more significant since it was the first CD exclusively distributed online to garner the prize.

The ArtistsShare® label, which Schneider joined in Y2K after three Enja releases, is an innovative one. Spearheaded by Brian Camelio, a savvy producer and businessman, ArtistsShare® allows musicians to be more proactive in making records. Not only does it eliminate middlemen in the retail trade by selling its titles directly off the net, but it also enables musicians to finance their projects. And backing a big band record is a tall order. Yet, for her latest recording, “Skye Blue” (2007), Schneider managed to raise an impressive $170,000 via purchases of her records, special package deals ranging from deluxe editions and a single Gold participation of… $18,000! “It came from someone I never met in my life,” marvels Schneider, who also firmly believes that “there are people out there in the business world who love the arts and want to be part of that by contributing to it.”

While deals of this kind would have been inconceivable in pre-internet days, artists are nevertheless saddled by greater business and management responsibilities. Schneider laments the fact that all of the e-mailing, text messaging and sundry chores cut into the time for writing music. “Anybody can contact you at anytime of the day. Way back when, they didn’t even have answering machines: If you weren’t home, you weren’t home and that was all there was to it. But if you want to write now, you have to find a place so as not to be disturbed. I don’t have time to practice piano either, so no one should expect to see me playing one day.” (As Evans finally did in 1960, at 48, Schneider’s current age.)

Interestingly, she has no affinity with any of the technological tools used by today’s composers. “I don’t use a computer at all”, she replies, “because I’m not adept with it to that degree. Paper enables me to sketch things out, draw arrows, and see the whole picture. I could not imagine watching music go by on the screen and being creative. Never. I always compose with the piano, but I do a combination of things: I may play for a while, record some, walk around the room for a while just to hear it in my head, even dance to feel it. There are people who can write right from their head and that blows me away, but I can’t – I need a piano and have to constantly rework things as I go.”

A New Challenge

While her reputation as a jazz composer is now firmly established, this does not mean that Maria Schneider wants to limit herself to this idiom. Over the years, she has fulfilled commissions for theater and dance companies, but last October she made her first “classical” foray by premiering a through-composed work for string ensemble and voice for the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra and sung by soprano Dawn Upshaw.

“I spent six obsessive months working on a 24-minute work. Dawn knew me, my music and band, so she asked me if I’d be interested writing for her. I was a bit apprehensive at first, because it was so different for me. But it turned out that I really loved doing it and it went very well, too. The work, entitled “Carlos Andrade Stories”, is based on the writings of a Brazilian writer whose work I like very much,” she explains.

As demanding as the composing was for Schneider, this was not the only challenge she faced in this artistic (ad)venture. As she soon found out, conducting the Saint Paul Chamber Ensemble was a whole other story from fronting her regular crew of jazzers.

“Of course, one has improvisers and the other doesn’t, but that wasn’t the main issue; it was more a question of not having a rhythm section, and I didn’t want to tack on one either, which I’ve never liked. From a compositional standpoint, the big question was how to put all of that rhythm within the orchestra. As for the conducting, I found out I had a lot to learn, and I do plan to take some lessons, but what really struck me was how much these musicians play behind the beat rather than right on it, because in jazz you have a rhythm section, so everybody is much more in time. I had to find ways to pull them along, smooth them out and create expression in the music. Orchestral players always want to see the beat.”

By her own admission, Maria Schneider hit a burnout after that, in part because of the writing, but also due her repeated travels abroad to front various radio orchestras and just having to take care of so much business. While she admits feeling the urge to compose, she isn’t sure whether she will have new material ready for her upcoming three-city tour of Eastern Canada in late June. Although seen in Montreal ten years ago as a visiting guest composer, and for a Canadian premiere of her band at the Ottawa Jazz Festival a few years ago, this will really be her first major exposure North of the Border.

“Since we haven’t performed any of our current music in Canada, it certainly doesn’t hurt to do what we do well,” she says. “And it sounds so much better now than on the record because we’ve toured with it. Everyone brings something different to it each time, because they all know where the boundaries are, or aren’t, so they can really fly with it and have fun, too.”

Maria Schneider Jazz Orchestra in Concert:
› ‑Toronto Downtown Jazz Festival, June 28 (Harbourfront Theater, 7 PM)

› ‑Ottawa International Jazz Festival, June 29 (Confederation Park, 9 PM)

› ‑Festival International de Jazz de Montréal, June 30 (Théâtre Maisonneuve, 8 PM)


Read complete interview with the artist at www.scena.org/blog/jazz

Version française...
(c) La Scena Musicale