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November 27, 2007

TT: And the band played on

I find it all but impossible to believe that nearly two decades have gone by since I met Maria Schneider. I had the good luck to hear Maria's music when she was just getting started as a bandleader, and the good sense to recognize that it bore the stamp of something more than mere talent. From then on I followed her work closely, and when I started contributing profiles to The Wall Street Journal a few years later, she was at the top of my short list of people about whom I wanted to write. So far as I know, "At 33, a Composer of Note," which was published in the Journal on October 7, 1994, was the first time anyone wrote at length about Maria outside of the jazz press, a fact of which I have long been sinfully proud, never more so than when she won her first Grammy two years ago. It's nice to be ahead of the crowd--and even nicer when it finally catches up with you.

Last week I went to the Jazz Standard to hear Maria's band play selections from Sky Blue, their latest CD. As I listened, I marveled for the umpteenth time that such richly colored, meticulously wrought sounds had sprung from the mind of so improbable a creature. Maria is a pretty, giggly, irrepressibly enthusiastic strawberry blonde who is...well, let's just call her the kind of person to whom stuff happens. Whenever she returns from the road, she always has hair-raising adventures to report, some of which will pop up in her music sooner or later. Few instrumental composers of importance (and Maria is a very important composer) have drawn so directly on the remembered experiences that she transforms by an impenetrable act of mental alchemy into the pastel clouds of sound that are her compositions. I love to watch bits and pieces of her life find their way onto manuscript paper: hang gliding, childhood car rides, the dance music of Latin America, the sound of birds singing in Central Park.

Maria is a thoughtful, introspective woman who has known her share of sorrow and been toughened by it. Yet I can't think of another artist who is less guarded, especially when she clambers onto a bandstand and starts telling an audience about the next piece on the program. Like my late friend Nancy LaMott, Maria is a blurter, and anything can happen when she gets in front of a microphone. I can't count the number of times that I've listened to one of her helter-skelter monologues and asked myself how it was possible that so zany a person could have brought pieces like "Hang Gliding," "Buleria, Soleá y Rumba," and "Cerulean Skies" into the world. Nothing is as mysterious as creativity, even when you know the creator. Especially when you know the creator.

I left my Wall Street Journal profile of Maria out of the Teachout Reader because it was too short to stand on its own, and also because I'd already spun part of it into the liner notes I wrote for Coming About, her second album. It occurs to me that you might be interested in reading the original piece, which hasn't been reprinted since it appeared in the Journal in 1994. (Alas, Visiones, the much-loved Greenwich Village nightclub referred to in the piece, closed its doors years ago.) Better pieces have been written about Maria Schneider since then, but this one had the virtue of being first.

* * *

According to the history books, the big-band era came to a screeching halt in December 1946, when eight of the country's top bandleaders (among them Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey and Harry James) folded their tents and retired to the land where the good songs go. Forty-eight years later, big bands are the dinosaurs of the music business--unwieldy, expensive and, some think, headed inexorably for extinction. But try telling that to the 17 musicians who gather every Monday night at Visiones, a Greenwich Village nightclub, to play the music of Maria Schneider, a slight, strawberry-blond woman who, at the age of 33, is regarded by a rapidly growing number of insiders as one of the most promising young jazz composers in the world.

Schneider, who hails from Windom, Minn. (pop. 4,288), doesn't look like a composer or act like a musician. "People are always asking me if I sing with the band," she complains laughingly. In fact, she doesn't even play with the Maria Schneider Jazz Orchestra. All she does is lead it--waving her arms in a T-square junior-high band director's beat straight out of Conducting 101--and write the music it performs.

It's hard for a musician who specializes exclusively in composition to make much of an impression on the chops-conscious virtuosos of the jazz world. But Schneider knows it can be done, because she worked closely with one of the few people who has done it: Gil Evans, the master composer who arranged Miles Davis's classic albums "Sketches of Spain," "Miles Ahead" and "Porgy and Bess." Schneider was Evans's musical assistant during the last three years of his life. "Gil was relaxed, calm, incredibly sweet, gentle, spiritual," she recalls. Before meeting Evans, she studied with valve trombonist Bob Brookmeyer, who wrote brilliant arrangements for the Gerry Mulligan Concert Jazz Band and the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Jazz Orchestra.

Working with Evans and Brookmeyer inspired Schneider to develop a stunningly original sound of her own. She can write old-fashioned flagwaver-with-a-shout-chorus charts whenever she pleases, but prefers to turn out harmonically complex originals with subtly blended instrumental colors that suggest Evans without ever borrowing from him. Though her music has a fresh, childlike quality that mirrors her friendly small-town demeanor, Schneider also has a sure-footed grasp of formal structure--one of Brookmeyer's obsessions--that is rare in a jazz composer. "I think my music has a strong element of fantasy in it," she says, adding that the inspirations for her compositions are as likely as not to be visual: dreams, paintings ("Some Circles" is named for a canvas by Kandinsky), even ballets (a self-described "New York City Ballet freak," Schneider would love to write a score for Jerome Robbins).

With the great days of the road bands long past, the only way for a jazz composer like Schneider to get his or her work played regularly is to put together a group. She did so in 1989, initially in collaboration with trombonist John Fedchock, who played with and wrote for Woody Herman's last band. (Schneider is now sole leader of the group.)

"You can't imagine how expensive it is to start a band," she says. "In New York, just to rehearse costs around $150 to hire a studio and rent sound equipment. Then you have to get the music together. The Xeroxing, the time spent copying the parts--it adds up fast. There aren't that many clubs, either, and they can't pay that much because they aren't doing that well. We're so lucky to have Visiones."

Since there aren't enough jobs available to keep a big band together full time, Schneider does what Jones and Lewis did before her: She pays 17 players $20 a night to get together on Mondays (in most big cities, Monday is musicians' night off) and perform her music. The personnel, though basically constant, necessarily fluctuates from week to week. The musicians occasionally send substitutes in order to make more lucrative gigs, but when the first-string team is in place and the moon is in phase, the band can blow the roof off Visiones without even raising a sweat. Not that Schneider minds seeing unfamiliar faces on Monday night: "I used to really panic when strange people were sight reading on the bandstand, but I don't anymore. A lot of times, just one new player can spark a whole new enthusiasm in the band."

Unlike many jazz composers, Schneider refuses to write commercial music in order to eke out a living: "I did do two jingles when I first came to New York, but it was disastrous--I did nothing but cry the entire time I wrote them." At first, she worked as a music copyist for other composers and arrangers; she now underwrites her band by accepting composing projects from the state-subsidized TV and radio orchestras of Europe, where her reputation is high. But in the U.S., Schneider was for many years known only to jazz lovers lucky enough to stumble into Visiones on a Monday night.

In order to spread the word about her band, Schneider recorded nine of her best charts, paying for the studio time out of her own pocket, and shopped the master tape around to various record companies. Enja Records liked what it heard and turned the tape into her first CD, "Evanescence," released earlier this year to uniformly enthusiastic reviews.

"I still have people telling me that I need to make my music a little more commercial to make money," Schneider says. "But I think that if you stick to the thing you really love and work really hard at it, you can create your own market--your music will be unique, and people will come to hear you. And if they don't, I'd still rather copy music or flip burgers for a living. I could live with that. I couldn't live with writing commercial music that I don't feel from my heart."

* * *

To purchase Sky Blue, go here.

Posted November 27, 2007 12:00 AM

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