Friday, November 17, 2006

Nice Maria Schneider article

New York Times 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 said.

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 composed.

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,

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 jazz.

“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 psychology.

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

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