By Howard Mandel
Maria Schneider captains a high-flying jazz orchestra – all by herself, independent of responsibilities to anything but her art. Independence and leadership are her strengths, not to downplay imagination, taste and practical creativity — she more than any other jazz person seems to have marshalled the resources of the Internet, thriving careerwise by convening a mutual appreciation society on her ArtistShare Internet site that keeps her musical enterprise aloft.
But on the first day of recording Sky Blue, the Maria Schneider orchestra’s fifth album, in January 2007, her full complement of brass and reeds players clumped together on folding chairs in the jump-ball center of Legacy Studio’s gymnasium-sized studio looked more like scattered odd ducks than a tight flight team, bound and ready to take off.
Part of the problem was that half the flock seemed to be missing — the rhythm section. Three trumpets, four trombones and five saxophonists — most of them behind stands of flutes, clarinets, double-reeds and other extra horns — faced Schneider, a slender figure dressed in a black V-neck sweater over a T-shirt and jeans. She stood on a slightly raised platform in the New York studio, calm and casual. Amazingly so, considering her challenge of the hour – to launch a trip as arduous as one heading to the moon, the multi-week process of performing, recording, editing, mixing and finally releasing into the world an hour-long sequence of five distinctly different compositions, comprising Schneider’s most recent symphonic reflections on life.
“I’m shooting for both an album experience and an album that works composition to composition,” she explained in an interview held after her sessions were completed, but before mixing had commenced. “First and foremost I want each composition to be great, but I want the album to have kind of a feeling. There’s some real contrast in this music. There are a couple of pieces where the transitions between them are going to be amazing.”
Schneider glowed when she talked about what she heard in her mind, thinking of how all the atomized notes she’d laboriously written over the past three years had cohered as richly harmonized dynamic music, anticipating that what she’d planned for individuals and small groupings would lift off as they combined efforts, together yet still individuated. Each musician had a vital role, reflecting his or her personality and skills, but it was Schneider who’d generated and organized all together to loft the transformative sensory experience music provides.
Nothing was so obviously organized inside Legacy, not yet. A video cameraman swooped about, documenting this early stage of Schneider’s most ambitious work-to-date for a Brazilian television documentary. Guitarist Ben Monder sat off to the side of the horns on a folding chair, not-so-idly stroking his instrument, though he wasn’t audible. His amp, in a hallway, fed directly into the mix board run by engineer Joe Ferla.
A singer was sequestered out of sight, and trumpet soloist Ingrid Jensen played in a glass-enclosed room, a fair throw behind the other horns. As for the missing rhythm section: Pianist Frank Kimbrough and bassist Jay Anderson shared a separation booth, and drummer Clarence Penn played in another one, so no bleed-through would impinge on final mixes of renditions of the complicated charts.
All the musicians wore earphones to hear the ensemble sound, and they had some control over what they heard in those phones. But only Schneider seemed in a position to have eye contact with everyone (except the singer, who, as it happened, was just being tried out; Luciana Souza sings on the final album). One would assume that Schneider had to keep an eye on her score, too, as she conducted with clear, flowing gestures. However, her rapt expression made it evident that she knew what she had written inside-out. And whether in the studio or on the concert stage, she attends to her music and musicians more like a perfect hostess than a commander-in-chief, insuring that everyone has a good time as the way to make a well-planned party a memorable success.
Also in the hostess tradition, she strives to make an elaborate affair seem easy and fun. When multi-instrumentalist Scott Robinson stretched out on his back to do sit-ups, she held down his legs and beckoned the cameraman to catch it. On her podium, she was equally at ease with the assembled multitude: “OK, we’re going to start with ‘The Pretty Road,'” which she wrote in 2006, commissioned by a consortium of five northeastern U.S. jazz presenters.
The piece is based on Schneider’s recollection of a favorite recurring childhood moment, the drive home from the Driftwood Steakhouse outside the town where she grew up. Her father would take a route that ascended a slight rise, giving the family a view of the lights at night that turned Windom, Minn., then as now with a population of about 3,600, into what she calls “a little crystal kingdom.”
“We’d beg Dad to take this alternate route, and we called it the pretty road, because it was a little hill,” she remembered in the post-session interview. “Not really a hill, but a hill for Windom. And we would stop and look out and go, ‘Oh!’ It was so beautiful — for me it was the Manhattan skyline in the old days from the Brooklyn Bridge. So this piece is about going back in memory, looking through the windows and pulling out all the beautiful little experiences.”
To Schneider, the sparkle was something miraculous in a landscape she otherwise recalls as flat and ordinary. Her music – enhanced by Jensen’s sensitive use of digital delay during a climactic episode to evoke lingering memory, represents the miraculous, not the mundane. But of course her music begins with attention to detail.
At the studio: “Why don’t we start at the beginning so we can get the levels on the piano and everything as they come in just right?” Schneider requested. She cued Kimbrough to play a rising theme. The vocalist stated the melody, Steve Wilson’s clarinet wound itself around the line and then Schneider wiped out the attempt.
“I want to address this one thing. Gary,” she said to Gary Versace, who played accordion, “I’m missing you on the high stuff, where I need the weight. I’m not so sure the pitch matters. Jay, the bass supports this, too. Clarence, I want just some faint colors.”
The blending horns included flute, alto sax, bass clarinet, clarinet and tenor sax; the trombones were using bucket mutes. To all, Schneider asked: “Does it feel a hair slow? Let’s try adding a hair more momentum. Or does it feel good?” She showed genuine concern, and though she knows what she wants–or as Kimbrough said, “knows what she doesn’t want”–she sincerely solicited her players’ responses.
Schneider wanted to include everyone present in her process, though no one other than the musicians presumed to add anything but good vibes to the event.
Among the few friends and supporters who had gathered to observe this session was the executive producer who came to the project through Schneider’s web site on ArtistShare. A slightly older gentleman who insists on remaining nameless, he declined to offer any suggestions in the studio, though he donated $25,000 to the budget of Sky Blue. He said he was enthralled just to watch, and that further, “I feel privileged to help Maria realize her ideas. She’s an artist of the first rank, don’t you think?”
He understood, of course, that first rank work requires time. On the basis of her past experience, Schneider had scheduled four full days in the studio, and had underestimated at that.
Not very long after the four-and-a-half day recording stage of Sky Blue, she explained a little sheepishly, “I thought this was going to be a simple record. I always feel like that — well, maybe not about Concert In The Garden. But this was much more complex and detailed than I thought beforehand. We ended up having to go in, many of us, for an extra half day to record overdubbed parts. Mixing will take a long time, too.”
The days of the ramshackle, hell-for-leather rowdy jazz big band are far behind us – there’s improvisation, but little grabbed, fallen into, hastily done in Schneider’s orchestra. She expends enormous, continuous attentions and energies on every phase of creating a new work. Pre-recording preparation of her compositions and her commitment to the moment in the studio are two essential ingredients responsible for the results she derives from her troupe. She is equally involved not just in mixing, packaging and post-production but also with the documentation, web-marketing, photo shoots and press campaign. Her appearance of low-key sociability notwithstanding, she is absolutely serious about what she does.
“I work hard,” she reports without false modesty about how she develops her material. “I can’t stand to hear something that feels like I cut a corner, because I was lazy or didn’t have the time. If I’m not satisfied with a piece, I rewrite it. When I’m composing, I work 24/7. I can’t sleep. When I can sleep, that’s when I know when it’s done. My goal for each piece is to create a little personality. They’re like my babies, and I’m not happy until I can say, ‘OK, I can let that one go out there now and be on its own.”
Even then, she likes to watch over her hatchlings. “I do a lot of concerts with other groups than my orchestra,” Schneider asserts, “college groups and professionals like the Hamburg Radio Orchestra recently, the Cologne Radio Orchestra and Stockholm’s, which I did many times years ago. I’m going to work with a big band in Brazil for the first time in September, with all Brazilian musicians – I can’t wait. And I’ll be doing something in Italy with Italian musicians. Italy’s a fun place, and there are a lot of great musicians there.
“Those are great experiences for me, because I like to meet new musicians. But I’m always there to help them with my music, to show them what the piece is and how it works. Every piece has to have the right contour, the right attention, so it soars where it should soar. I encourage the musicians to do things as they want to, but the piece has to have its basic feeling. There’s a basic story. There’s a lot of play and possibilities about how an orchestra can go about getting to it, but the basic story line has to be retained.”
Back at Legacy, Schneider mentioned offhandedly, “I’ve worked with a different engineer in a different studio for each of my records. I don’t do it often, only every two or three years, so what’s been wonderful is to see how each engineer works differently. I’ve learned a lot.” Ferla marked the faders on each of his board’s tracks with the names of the musicians they represented while Schneider watched his moves, alert as she must have been as a little girl to have retained so much that she can represent now. She cited a reason for every wisp of melody threading through the underscore of “The Pretty Road.”
“There’s a reference to Herman and the Hermit’s ‘Henry The 8th, I Am,’ which I used to love to sing,” she explained. “And I had a friend named Hope; she was the youngest of 13 children who lived near us and her mother used to call her ‘Hop-eee!’ so Ingrid plays that motif. There’s a snatch of ‘As Time Goes By,’ for my parents, and also ‘Billy Boy,’ which was a favorite of my sisters and me. When Ingrid uses her digital effects — when the memory perspective of the piece comes in — Ben will do his reverb stuff, so it should be nice.”
Schneider weaves such elements together in a method like that pioneered by early 20th century New England composer Charles Ives, although Ives didn’t have the benefit of hearing much of his music performed, or having musicians dedicated to enhancing his concepts. Ives also liked a bit of bombast and calculated conflict from his symphonic forces, but Schneider favors coordination of her themes, smooth surfaces transparent to reveal lush depths.
Penn stepped into the recording room. “Joe, would you bring the wind chimes down in my mix, and the cymbals up a little bit, and the toms down a little, please?” he said.
“OK,” Ferla replied. “What do you call that thing that looks like a log drum?”
“A log drum.”
On the next take, the myriad colors of Schneider’s extensive palette began to jell. Penn’s cymbal washes and the accordion’s weight gained appropriate balance. As the singer entered gracefully in the third chorus, the orchestration deepened and widened. Schneider had moved off her platform to stand about six feet in front of her horns. Her conducting gestures became more muscular as Penn kicked in more forcefully, launching Jensen’s solo to waft like a glider on air.
The Brazilian cameraman focused on Jensen, and she began to double-time; as her trumpet solo peaked, the ensemble swept in beneath her, then dropped away while she triggered pointillistic electronic effects – reverb that added glisten to bird-like peeps and winged vibrations – during a rubato passage meant to establish the bittersweet quality of happiness recalled from long ago. Then
Kimbrough ushered in the theme’s recapitulation, while Schneider conducted the horns more fervently, with her arms bared and her body in a dance that conveyed energy to her players, which they passed back as sound.
The composition — which clocked in at 13:44 — concluded with a gradual dispersal of clarinet and flute and trumpet calls over a bass ostinato, all fading as if in a mist. After a moment’s pause the musicians stood and relaxed, and started to wander toward the engineer’s room for playback . They seemed to sense that they’d done something substantial. Schneider said she hoped that’s what she’d given them to work with, but she was never quite sure where her impulses came from, or how they might be considered.
“I’m definitely using my intellectual mind, and every tool I have to put that music together,” she said. “For example, with the landó (‘Aires De Landó’), I didn’t sit down to write a landó. In fact, when I was in Peru everybody said, ‘Oh, you went to Machu Picchu, you hiked–you’re going to write a piece.’ I can’t sit down and say, ‘I’m going to write a landó now.’ That would make for such a dry experience. I would have never in a million years have thought of writing a landó in multimeter. I couldn’t even hear the lando in six. Maybe it’s my subconscious saying we’re going to teach you to learn lando by making it even harder. Hear it over nine. Or hear it over 15. The fact is, I’m not sure where these ideas come from. I’m not sure who’s driving the bus.”
Why worry? Let it flow. “I’m not trying to prove anything through my writing,” she maintained. “Although my music is largely shaped by where I grew up, nobody put in my head the idea of what jazz is. My piano teacher back in windom and I never even used that word. Matter of fact, I didn’t even know that jazz developed beyond swing until I went to college. I didn’t know. I had some Teddy Wilson, I had some old Ellington. I thought that jazz basically had died.
“When I was in college I started out as a classical major, and at that time the classical world was into writing from an analytic place. It was complex, intellectual and I couldn’t relate to it,” she continued. “All of a sudden I discovered several decades of jazz music that I hadn’t heard. Bill Evans, Gil Evans, Mingus, Monk. I was crazy for George Russell, Bob Brookmeyer’s music when he did ‘Make Me Smile.’ I heard all these amazing jazz musicians who used contemporary techniques. Gil Evans’ music — the intricacies of Ravel or Debussy together with the emotion and spontaneity of somebody like Miles, and the raw rhythm and stuff. I loved it so much, and it did not occur to me that I would be a jazz composer.”
But here she was: composer, orchestra leader, record producer. The first thing Schneider said to Ferla after the band’s first complete take was, “Can you make the room warmer? The temperature is rough on the horns’ pitch.” He nodded. “And the drums are a little strange in my headphones. The bass drum is ringing. Can you make the drums less stereo?”
Ferla nodded again. “I’ll make the image tighter. Sorry about this: for some reason we didn’t get some of the drums on tape in that take.”
Schneider didn’t blink, she’d already decided another take was necessary. “Can I hear just Ingrid’s effects? It sounds dry. Ingrid, we can overdub something here — there’s a hole in the beginning of your solo where I can use some more guitar reverb. Where’s Ben?” Immediately turning to her horn players: “Steve [Wilson] and Charlie [Pillow]–can you work on the wah-wah effect? Donny [McCaslin], you don’t play an F#.”
“I should have played a concert F#,” McCaslin agreed.
“Maria, the trombones are absent, I can’t hear what we’re doing,” said someone else.
“I know,” she said. “And it’s a little bright, isn’t it?
“We’ve been pushing the attack,” said the trombonist. “Maybe we could back off it.”
“Can you darken it?” Schneider asked Ferla.
“I can’t do that now,” replied the engineer. “But we can do it when we EQ. Right now I’m recording flat.”
“Ingrid,” Schneider turned to her trumpeter, who is also one of her best friends.
“Let me guess,” said Jensen, “You want me to play less at the beginning of my solo, so you can hear a greater ramp up.”
“You’re welcome to do whatever you want to, but I told Clarence to play less there, and he says he’s following you.”
“I was wanking,” Jensen admitted. “My caffeine kicked in, and I thought, play everything! Let’s try it again.”
The bandmembers resumed their spots for another take, but Schneider judged it “a little plummy,” and counted off take four. To a listener growing more familiar with the composition on every pass, its wealth of facets and dimensions continued to emerge; textures changed by the phrase, by the measure. “The Pretty Road” developed unpredictably with each take — each version was surprisingly different, an attribute that Kimbrough, who has been with Schneider’s orchestra since 1993, has identified as due to an extraordinary amount of freedom Schneider encourages within her meticulously through-composed charts.
“You find places where you can color her writing with your own personality,” he’s said. “You may look at what’s on paper, and say, ‘Wait a minute, there’s nothing for me here,’ but then you realize that’s part of the challenge, to find that space where you can add your own touch. I like that about playing with Maria, being part of something larger than myself. Being able to find my spots gets easier from having played with her so long, but then there are places in her writing set up to pop me out, too.
“When she writes a new piece and brings it to us we look at, even though everything in her scores is digitally notated, she goes to great pains to make everything clear,” he continued. “We go, ‘Oh my gosh, what is this?’ There’s no template, no record you can buy to hear how the piece sounds.”
“It’s great the way Maria writes behind the soloist, it actually leaves us plenty of space and a nice cushion,” enthused Steve Wilson, months after the sessions. “I can feed off of what she’s written for backgrounds, or the main ensemble writing, and work that into I what I’m doing.
“She’s writing from more of an orchestral concept than a traditional big band thing — it’s not conventional saxes against brass, there’s a lot of heavy woodwind writing for flute and clarinets,” he continued. “Playing individual parts you may be in a grouping with a lot of instruments outside of your section. You have to nail the pitch, figure out who you’re blending with. I love to listen as much as to play, so I think working with her has made me a better instrumentalist. I don’t consider myself a soloist with a rhythm section. I consider myself a soloist playing with the ensemble, and I try to bring that to all my work with other large and small ensembles.”
“Maria was open-minded to give me the latitude to experiment with my effects at a time when I was starting to mess with them,” Jensen also acknowledged after the sessions were complete. “She was searching for a way to extend her ambient ideas out of her non-electric instruments, and I began to hear how to sustain colors using simple delay — nothing crazy. At first the sound man on gigs would give me the delay, but eventually it got to my bringing my electronics on the road, creating soundscapes around her conducting. I’ll fill up space with something that’s a reaction to the orchestra, completely rubato, and then she’ll cue a new section where there are a lot of chord changes.
“I joked once that she was giving me one-chord vamps to play over all the time, and she said, ‘That’s because you’re the queen of doing that,'” Jensen added. “But then she gave me a piece with a lot of changes, and said, ‘You don’t mind if they’re in B, do you?’ It was only the hardest part I’ve ever had to play in my life. I was playing all the way through, beginning to end.”
“Her stuff is hard work,” agreed Robinson, who plays tenor, clarinet, bass clarinet, contrabass clarinet and C-melody sax in Schneider’s orchestra, and has been known to pull out his cornet or valve trombone for a bit part. “There is so much detail, a lot of blowing, a lot of horn-on-the-face time. It can be taxing particularly for the brass players. But she’s got a phenomenal band. Lesser players would fold on that music.”
Robinson has been a stalwart of Schneider’s ensemble since 1989, when it was co-led by trombonist John Fedchock (her ex-husband), and he recites a number of phases its sound has gone through — including a period when, he claims, it was rock ‘n’ roll loud. That was during the Maria Schneider Orchestra’s five years of Monday nights at Visiones, a Greenwich Village club which has, as Robinson remembers, a concrete ceiling about a foot-and-a-half from his head and a cramped bandstand, quite unlike the big room the band came to enjoy at Legacy Studios. These days Schneider’s orchestra seems to be too big for most jazz clubs — not with more instrumentalists, but with greater reputation. She has found a Manhattan home at the Jazz Standard, but works there only once or twice a year. Festivals and concert series are the good gigs, not easy to come by, supplanted by teaching stints and residencies. Schneider had expected to follow up the recording and summer release of Sky Blue with a European tour, but it didn’t materialize.
“We tried to get stuff in Europe but couldn’t get enough money to make happen, so we let it go,” Schneider conceded. “It’s OK. Finishing this record, I’m going to need a break. I’m doing some teaching at Banff (the prestigious music camp in Alberta, Canada), and there will probably be a new project right behind it.”
That project may not even feature the Orchestra immediately; she has been discussing some music with the Spanish nuevo-flamenco guitarist Tomatito, for in line with her growing interests in music with a Hispanic accent. Schneider worked with Brazilian singer-songwriter-guitarist Ivan Lins a few years back, and thoroughly enjoyed it; she has become a devotee of Brazilian choro, and also, after traveling in Peru, composed ‘Aires De Landó’ a rhythmically complicated piece that appears on Sky Blue.
“That’s one of the challenges in Maria’s orchestra; she throws interesting material at us, then leaves it up to us in terms of soloing to make something out of it,” Robinson said. “Her music enables me to find different ways to play–on any given night on a particular piece I might play something completely different than the night before, and she likes hearing that, where other bandleaders are sometimes suspicious if the player takes a left turn.
“She’s a joy to work with,” Robinson continued. “After a gig sometimes she’ll call me up or send me an e-mail raving about something I played, excited like a kid, going on and on about how fantastic it was. I’ve worked for a lot of bandleaders who would never dream of making that call.”
Such personal follow-up is apiece with Schneider’s sense of responsibility, just like her fixation on the tiniest grace notes contributing to the overall affects of a composition. She was thrilled with one such transposition leading to transformation with the recording done, but the mix unfinished.
“The best is going to be the bird piece, ‘Cerulean Skies,’ going into ‘Rich’s Piece,’ that features Rich Perry. ‘Cerulean Skies’ has these birdsongs at the beginning made by everybody in the band with their mouths, whistles and little instruments. At the end I bring in some real bird recording that I found in the animal sound library of Cornell University. There’s a cerulean warbler, and also pretty common bird that I love the song of, the white-throated sparrow. It has a sound that’s like a person whistling.
“I wanted a white-throated sparrow because I wrote the title piece of Sky Blue for my friend who died of breast cancer, and that was her favorite bird. Well, I found a recording of a white-throated sparrow that goes up a perfect fifth, and kind of swings on the top note. It sings the minor third and flat 7th of a C minor chord, and then the next piece begins with Rich playing the C and the G of the same chord, in the same key. When I heard that, I was like, ‘Oh my gosh! This is perfect! The white-throated sparrow recording was made for this effect!’
“I’m passionate about the environment, you know, and I’m a birder, and have this idea about the solidarity of the north and south hemispheres being held together by the migration of birds – it’s unbelievable, you know, millions of birds migrating twice a year, because of this incredible instinctual impulse. It’s like at the end of a solo how the soloist soars, like a bird, one warbler, flying against the flutter of all these wings, navigating by starlight at night — imagine!”
Clearly she could see it, but Schneider returned to earth then for self-conscious summation. “I’m a storyteller,” she said, “and I do it through music. I take the basic, the simple, the mundane in life and I want to make everything more beautiful, more charming and more alive than maybe it is. I’ve had my share of difficulties, yeah. I find a way to transform my past in music and make it richer maybe than it was, so it’s richer than it is.” She paused.
“I’m a lucky woman,” Maria Schneider declared, “but doing this is not for wimps.”
This article was originally published in a slightly different form in the July 2007 DownBeat.