Maria Schneider is in residence this week at the Jazz Standard, presenting brand new music that she’ll record at the end of August and then self-release. It sounds different than anything I’ve heard by her, so if you have a chance, get to the Standard. In any event, I realized that I’ve never posted any of my various articles, collaborations or interviews with Maria. Hopefully this post is will rectify that glaring omission.
Maria Schneider, Gil Evans “Dozens” for Jazz.com:
1.) Sorta Kinda (Track 13)
Artist; Claude Thornhill:
Album: The Real Birth of the Cool: Studio Recordings (Sony)
Musicians: Claude Thornhill Orchestra : Gil Evans (arranger); Ed Zandy, Louis Mucci, Emil Terry (tp) John Torrick, Allen Langstaff (tb) Walt Weschler, Sandy Siegelstein (fhr) Harold Weskel (tu) James Gemus, Victor Harris, Ed Stang (fl, pic); Danny Polo (as,cl) Bill Glover (as,fl) Mickey Folus (ts,b-cl) Mario Rollo (ts,cl) Billy Bushey (bar, b-cl,cl) Claude Thornhill (p,arr) Barry Galbraith (g) Joe Shulman (b) Bill Exner (drums); Gene Williams (vocal)
New York, June 4, 1947
This recording has so many great Gil Evans arrangements that I’d easily qualify it as a must-own CD. I love this particular arrangement because it’s just so swingin’ and hip (I know–very subjective words). First of all, this is not the hippest song on the planet probably, and neither is the singing, but what Gil manages to create is extraordinary. The intro is quirky and wild, starting with the ascending sax line leading into the huge ensemble blast, then dropping off a cliff into a little piano moment. Contrast is a big part of the personality of this arrangement. It’s very daring. Gil doesn’t bring in the vocalist until after a full minute into the tune, and the whole piece is less than 3 minutes. He makes a very bouncy version of the melody with tight ensemble writing. After the intro, it feels very conventional, but rhythmically it swings like crazy. At the end of this first statement of melody between Gil’s mid-range brass and piano, he creates a transition and modulation that’s really unexpected. Listen to the bottom of the brass, the unison line against the quirky line in the trumpets. Also, this transition extends the form of the tune and creates an odd phrase that goes on longer than expected. The piece is full of surprises–the kind you want to experience again and again. I find it to be a hilarious moment when this wildly creative transition settles into a new key and the simple vocal entrance. As the vocal delivers the melody, Gil throws in some awesome counter-lines in the saxes and French horns, with great little brass hits–endless details that just make the feel so lively! Then the band’s full, concerted ensemble send-off to the tenor solo is just superb line writing, creating a completely light and fluid full ensemble. Not easy to do, trust me! And the band is so swingin’ too. Check out how hard the band swings and the great line in the ensemble right before the vocal returns. Man! Of course, Gil writes fantastic lines for every player so it’s super-gratifying to play, and, with the inner parts so well written, it’s almost impossible not to swing. Just when you think Gil’s given you his last surprise, check out the last note. With a very dry delivery, he lands on an odd note (the relative minor key). How I wish I’d known this piece when I knew Gil. I’d have loved to listen to it with him. I know the exact look on his face and the laugh he’d make when he heard the last note himself. That man had some sense of humor and this is one fantastic arrangement. And to think it was recorded in 1947. Wow!
Just a side note: obviously Gil also realized how hip this arrangement was, because he would come to reuse a lot of this same ensemble passages almost 10 years later for his arrangement of “People Will Say We’re In Love” with Helen Merrill on her wonderful album, arranged entirely by Gil, called Dream of You.
2.) The Troubador (based on “The Old Castle” from Mussorgsky’s ‘Pictures at an Exhibition’)
Artist: Claude thornhill
Album: The Real Birth of the Cool (Transcription Recordings)
Artists: Claude Thornhill Orchestra: Ed Zandy, Louis Mucci, Emil Terry (tp) Tak Tavorkian, Allen Langstaff (tb) Walt Weschler, Sandy Siegelstein (fhr) Bill Barber (tu) James Gemus, Victor Harris, Ed Stang (fl,pic) Danny Polo (as,cl) Les Clarke (as,fl) Mickey Folus (ts,b-cl) Mario Rollo (ts,cl) Billy Bushey (bar,b-cl,cl) Claude Thornhill (p,arr) Barry Galbraith (g) Joe Shulman (b) Bill Exiner (d) Fran Warren, Gene Williams (vcl) Gil Evans (arr)
Recorded: New York, NY, June 18, 1947
I ask that you spend 99 cents and buy “Pictures at an Exhibition” (the orchestral version) orchestrated by Ravel, and get the part for The Old Castle. That’s what this is based on. You’ll find the comparison to be very enlightening. People often assume that classical composers write more linearly than most jazz composers/orchestrators. Jazz tends to be chord conscious–many arrangers thinking vertically when they arrange. And when most people talk about Gil Evans music, they refer to the marvelous “voicings.” I say phooey to that. The magic of Gil is so far beyond that. It’s in the lines and layers folks! There are so many layers displayed here it’s just crazy.
The original begins with a bassoon line that is quite hypnotic and gives way to the melody. This bassoon line comes in again just briefly under the melody at the end of a phrase connecting us to the start of the melody again. In Gil’s version, after an intro based on Promenade (the recurring main theme in between each part of “Pictures”…), he starts with a little rhythmic nudging figure in the low brass at 0:27. Then he adds the flutes in a repetitive cross-rhythmic staccato figure, creating another layer that will add to the overall feeling feeling of “play” in the otherwise staid 4/4 meter. Now enters Mussorgsky/Ravel’s original bassoon line, but Gil orchestrated it as a low unison for two bass clarinets with French horn (0:37). Gil’s differs in that he will greatly extend the line, weaving it into a counterline that endures and develops throughout much of the piece. All these layers are established before the melody even enters at 0:45 in a solo French horn. And they all work together without creating musical mud, because each idea or line is so firmly established in its own right that it’s easy for the listener to hear clearly the full tapestry and delight in the exquisite layering and details. Listen to the beautiful woodwind line at 1:30. The high flute “swirls” (2:34) are both lovely and exotic. The way this large ensemble grows and grows and then dramatically descends and dissipates (2:54–3:23) to tremolos (with harmonic twists and contortions unique to Gil) makes me leap up out of my chair! The colors (harmonic and timbral) are just stunning. There’s an interesting tuba line that creates a little shift in the overall harmony at 3:32. Listen to the subtle little shifts in harmony at 3:46–4:13 in the repeated brass riffs. 4:17–4:37 is just so creative. Even though harmonically things get very tight, twisted and dark, still, all the original material is there, so it’s a mud that you want to wallow in. The original doesn’t grow and develop nearly to the degree that Gil’s version does and there’s far less counterpoint. Gil was a master of development and intricacy. I think Ravel would have flipped over this. Also, it’s funny that the original uses alto sax for the melody, and Gil’s arrangement, which might be considered jazz, doesn’t use sax on that melody at all. Also, make note, there’s no improvisation on this piece. It’s just about Gil’s spectacular writing. Everything Gil would develop in later years has its roots firmly planted in his Thornhill music. This is one beauty!
3.) Track: My Ship
Artist: Miles Davis (flugelhorn)
Album: Miles Ahead (Miles Davis + 19) (Sony Columbia/Legacy CK 40784)
Band: Miles Davis Orchestra under the direction of Gil Evans: Miles Davis (flugelhorn); Bernie Glow, Ernie Royal, Louis Mucci, Taft Jordan, Johnny Carisi (trumpets); Frank Rehak, Jimmy Cleveland, Joe Bennett (trombones); Willie Ruff, Tony Miranda (french horns); Bill Barber (tuba); Lee Konitz (alto saxophone); Danny Bank (b-clarinet); Romeo Penque, Sid Cooper (clarinet, flute); Paul Chambers (bass); Art Taylor (drums) Gil Evans (arranger, conductor) Composed by Kurt Weill
Recorded: New York, May 10, 1957
This cut is beauty personified. There’s nothing seemingly complex or unusual, but even the simple half-note pads that sustain the harmony behind Miles have Gil’s telltale linearity and instrumental color. It’s also probably one of his best-known arrangements.
Starting with the intro, you’ll hear three layers. There’s the top pattern in the cup-mute trumpets that descends. On the very bottom there’s the static repetitive bass figure that’s also in the tuba. And then the third layer works in contrary motion to the top line. If you read Miles Davis’ autobiography, you’ll probably remember him marveling at Gil’s use of contrary motion. What it means, in this instance, is that while the muted trumpets have a figure that slowly descends, you’ll hear a bass clarinet slowly rising, as if coming out of a mist. When it reaches a rather high range, it drops to a little figure then that sets us up for the tune, which is stated by the low brass. This statement is partly characterized by the warm French horns placed quite high on the melody, the bass clarinet with a lovely line on the bottom, and the sweep of all the ensemble parts in motion with the melody. The ensemble here is voiced in harmony that gives beautiful lines to each player. The passage is lush with a darkly hued color to it.
I remember one day while working with Gil in about 1986, I walked in the door and found him at the piano, totally frustrated as he was trying to figure out what he wrote on this piece. He threw up his hands and said, “I don’t know what I wrote!” I was baffled and asked why on earth he’d need to transcribe his own music. That’s when he told me how one day he just got tired of his music and threw it out. Ouch! I was dying inside when I heard that. It also got me thinking about how it could be possible that such perfect music could ever, from his perspective, be worth trashing. I also got to witness, how, given the distance of years, he seemed to again appreciate its beauty. Thankfully much of Gil’s music was found, albeit long after he passed away.
I think one of the stunning moments of this cut is when Miles enters. The chords just feel like they glide, and their brightness, created by the slightly pinched sound of mutes, makes Miles’ fluegel a beautiful open and dark foil. That’s a moment I could loop a thousand times. The double-time feel passage from 2:27–2:45 is voiced in a way that allows it to move fleetly. That’s another wonderful ability Gil has. This piece ends how it begins, except this time the rising line of the bass clarinet is now absent, and that makes sense because we’re winding down. This piece immediately segues into “Miles Ahead,” another piece loaded with linearity, contrary motion, parallel motion and a light sound, despite a sometimes thick ensemble playing.
4.) TRACK: Struttin’ With Some BBQ
Artist: Gil Evans
Album: New Bottle Old Wine 1958 (World Pacific)
Band: Gil Evans Orchestra: Johnny Coles, Louis Mucci, Ernie Royal (trumpets); Joe Bennett, Tom Mitchell (trombones); Frank Rehak (trombone solo); Julius Watkins (French horn); Harvey Phillips (tuba) Cannonball Adderley (alto saxophone, soloist); Jerry Sanfino (reeds); Gil Evans (arranger, conductor, piano); Chuck Wayne (guitar); Paul Chambers (bass); Art Blakey (drums) Composer (Lillian Hardin Armstrong)
Recorded: New York, May 21, 1958
5.) TRACK; Bess, Oh Where’s My Bess
Artist: Miles Davis
Album: Porgy and Bess
Miles Davis (flugelhorn, trumpet); Johnny Coles, Bernie Glow, Louis Mucci, Ernie Royal (trumpets); Joe Bennett, Jimmy Cleveland, Frank Rehak (trombones); Dick Hixson (bass trombone); Willie Ruff, Gunther Schuller, Julius Watkins (french horn); Bill Barber (tuba); Jerome Richardson, Romeo Penque (flutes); Danny Bank (bass clarinet); Cannonball Adderley (alto saxophone); Paul Chambers (bass); Jimmy Cobb (drums); Gil Evans (arranger, conductor) Composed by George Gershwin
RECORDED: Columbia 30th Street Studios, NYC, August 4, 1958
How does one pick a favorite piece from Gil’s and Miles’ Porgy and Bess album? Tough to do. I’ve chosen this piece because it so perfectly illustrates another unique aspect of Gil’s writing. Sometimes when I listen to Gil, I get a spontaneous visualization of the inside of a watch: the perfection, the detail, all the little parts at work; nothing is there that doesn’t contribute to the flow of movement and the perfect passing of time. Every gear attaches and locks another into motion. If you listen to this piece, you can envision a serpentine line being passed from instrument to instrument, color to color, whether it’s behind Miles or in front when he’s not playing. It’s like a thread that never gets dropped. Let’s start at the top with the French horns and alto flutes that are playing a flowing passage together. Then the horns hold while the flutes go on their own, giving way to the trombones who take over, then the flutes pick up a line above them, and then soft brass (the trumpets are in hat mutes with French horns voiced with them). You can continue on through the piece and follow the slow-moving gears as lines pass around the orchestra. This piece also goes into a little swing section where the trombones take on Gil’s signature comping role that the piano might have taken if there was piano on the record. That’s a unique aspect to these Gil/Miles recordings. There’s an absence of piano. It leaves all the harmonic background to the creative hand of Gil.
One further detail. Because these pieces are a suite, their connectivity is really important. Take note how the end of this arrangement suddenly introduces a very stark, open, spare sound. It contrasts all the lushness we’ve been hearing. That spare sound is achieved by utilizing open-5th intervals in the ensemble. It also happens to be the same opening interval of the next movement, “Prayer.” So this ending is really more of a “transition” to “Prayer.” Much of the elegance of these collaborative recordings is how each subsequent piece begins with a feeling of inevitable arrival. Gil leaves no stone unturned.
6.) TRACK: Concierto de Aranjuez – Adagio (Joaquin Rodrigo)
Artist: Miles Davis:
Album: Sketches of Spain
Gil Evans Orchestra: Miles Davis (flugelhorn, trumpet); Bernie Glow, Taft Jordan, Louis Mucci, Ernie Royal (trumpets); Dick Hixson, Frank Rehak (trombone); John Barrows, Jim Buffington, Earl Chapin (French horns); Jimmy McAllister (tuba); Albert Block, Eddie Caine (flutes); Harold Feldman (oboe, clarinet); Danny Bank (bass clarinet); Janet Putman (harp); Paul Chambers (bass); Jimmy Cobb (drums); Elvin Jones (percussion); Gil Evans (arranger, conductor) Composed by Joaquin Rodrigo
recorded: Columbia 30th Street Studios, NYC, November 20, 1959
This is arguably the finest of Gil’s and Miles’ collaborations. There are countless details one could highlight, but I would like to touch on two particular points about this piece. It will be more deeply appreciated if you take the opportunity to first listen to the original guitar concerto as composed by Rodrigo. A comparison will illuminate Gil’s unique gifts in writing all parts in a linear fashion. It’s most notable that he manages to do this even in the bass line. The bass is never just relegated to playing roots, but rather lines—rich melodic lines. If you listen to the tuba line in the beginning, you’ll catch one of these lines right from the start. And if you listen to the bottom parts throughout this work, you’ll see that part of the translucence that Gil generally gets in his music is from freeing up the bottom and putting air in these low parts. Such attention to line-writing permeates every layer and can be heard throughout this piece. The amount of counterpoint exceeds the original by leaps and bounds. If you listen to both versions back to back, this will be very obvious without me pointing out a thing to you. This piece takes what he achieved in “The Troubador” (1947) to a whole other level. The path was certainly well laid in his work with the Thornhill Orchestra.
Gil once expressed to me that the thing about Miles that most inspired him was his sound. This piece perfectly illustrates how beautifully he sets up Miles. Listen to the opening: lines are perpetually moving, the harp undulating in high register, and the castanets fluttering. But the moment Miles enters, sonorities suddenly freeze, motionless—all lines, all undulation, all fluttering stop. This sudden vacuum brings us to focus purely on Miles’ horn. It’s a stunning moment. It’s long been my suspicion that the castanets were supposed to stop a couple of seconds earlier than you’ll hear on your recording. And sure enough, if you listen to the out-take on the boxed set, they stop the moment Miles enters as was most certainly intended. You’ll hear many other moments in this piece that showcase Miles in a similarly stunning way.
One of my favorite places in this piece comes at 5:44. I love the low flutes with wide vibrato that play and hesitate (there’s a bassoon, French horn and harp voiced in those chords too, with an almost inaudible timpani in the background giving the slightest hint of motion). It’s a very rubato (without strict time) section. I love how Gil utilizes Miles’ lowest range on the instrument. It’s utterly haunting. There’s a wonderful shift of color to brightness when Miles goes to Harmon, with cup-muted trumpets and flutes voiced behind him (9:30) giving a tangy sound. When the French horns enter at 10:11, they sound so warm by contrast as they play in sonorous parallel moving triads. That kind of harmonic movement is one way Gil gets the smooth sound that we’ve come to associate with him. The subtle moan in their parts is so expressive (10:28). Now the cup-muted trumpets, harp and flute all take over before you hear descending lines that slow us down. Here, Gil starts to set up anticipation for the large ensemble passage that will soon become the climax of the entire piece. He leads up to it using parallel triadic French horns again, voiced with flutes and harp. There’s a counterline in the bassoon, a wonderful color to be appreciated throughout this piece. The castanets are going along throughout helping the build. At 12:46 the tambourine color enters, and we are overwhelmed by a wonderful full-ensemble orchestration of the main theme. You’ll hear moments of parallel and then contrary motion. I particularly love 13:26, where you can especially catch the essence of the parallel triadic motion in all parts. Listen to the French horns inside the ensemble. That lead note reaches the very top of the instrument range in the lead French horn at 13:36, and it just soars! And the triadic 16-notes at 13:46 are just so exciting. Conducting this section and hearing it surrounding you in live concert is a trip. Every hair stands on end.
This is followed up by all sorts of detailed, muted, impressionistic “color” accompanying very low lines in the tuba and bass. It comes down to such spareness and fragility with just a lone tuba, harp and bass behind Miles at 15:32. I love the passing of lines from the bassoon, to the Harmon trumpet, and finally to Miles at the very end. Whew!
This is arguably the finest collaboration of Gil Evans and Miles Davis. There are countless details to highlight, but I would like to touch on two particular points about this piece. One will be more deeply appreciated if you take the opportunity to first play the original guitar concerto as composed by Rodrigo. A comparison will illuminate Gil Evans’ unique gifts in writing linearly in all parts. It is most notable that he manages to do this even in the the bass line. The bass is never just relegated to playing ro ots, but rather lines, rich melodic lines. If you listen to the tuba line in the beginning, you’ll catch one of these lines right from the start. And if you listen to the bottom parts throughout this work, you’ll see that part of the translucence that Gil generally gets in his music is from freeing up the bottom and putting air in these low parts. Such attention to line writing permeates every layer and can be heard throughout this piece.
Gil once expressed to me that the thing about Miles that most inspired him was his sound. I’ve heard him speak of it in interviews as well. This piece perfectly illustrates how beautifully he sets up Miles’ sound. Listen to the opening, lines perpetually moving, the harp undulating in high register, and the castanets fluttering. The moment Miles enters, sonorities suddenly freeze, motionless–all lines, all undulation, all fluttering stop. Even vibrato is absent. This sudden vacuum brings us to focus purely on the vibration of sound from Miles’ horn. It’s long been my suspicion that the castanets were supposed to stop a couple of seconds earlier than you’ll hear on your recording. And sure enough, if you listen to the out-take on the box set, it stops the moment Miles enters as was most certainly intended. You’ll hear many other moments in this piece that showcase Miles in the same way.
7.) TRACK: Once Upon a Summertime
Artist: Miles Davis
Album: Quiet Nights
Miles Davis (trumpet, solo); Johnny Coles, Bernie Glow, Louis Mucci, Ernie Royal (trumpet); Dick Hixson, Jimmy Knepper, Frank Rehak (trombones); Paul Ingraham, Robert Swisshelm, Julius Watkins (French horns); Bill Barber (tuba); Danny Bank, Eddie Caine, Romeo Penque, Jerome Richardson, Bob Tricarico (woodwinds); Janet Putman (harp); Jimmy Cobb (drums); Elvin Jones, Bobby Rosengarden (percussion); Gil Evans (arranger, conductor) composed by Michel Legrand
RECORDED: NYC, November 6, 1962
8.) TRACK: Stratusphunk
ARTIST: Gil Evans
Album: Out of the Cool
The Gil Evans Orchestra: Gil Evans (piano, arranger); Johnny Coles (trumpet solo); Phil Sunkel (trumpet); Jimmy Knepper, Keg Johnson (trombones); Tony Studd (bass trombone); Bill Barber (tuba); Eddie Caine (flute, piccolo, alto saxophone) Budd Johnson (tenor saxophone); Bob Tricarico (bassoon, flute, piccolo); Ray Crawford (guitar, solo); Ron Carter (bass); Charlie Persip, Elvin Jones (drums, percussion)
recording: November 18 or 30, 1960
9.) TRACK: The Barbara Song (Kurt Weill, from Three-Penny Opera)
ARTIST: Gil Evans
Album: The Individualism of Gil Evans ((Verve 833 804-2)
Musicians: Gil Evans (piano), Wayne Shorter (tenor sax), Frank Rehak (trombone), Ray Alonge, Julius Watkins (French horns), Bill Barber (tuba), Al Block (flute), Andy Fitzgerald (bass flute), George Marge (English horn), Bob Tricarico (bassoon), Bob Maxwell (harp), Gary Peacock (bass) Elvin Jones (drums)
Composed by Kurt Weill; arranged by Gil Evans
When I first heard this arrangement, I was immediately in love with it. I thought of it as a Gil piece, not an arrangement of something. One day, it occurred to me to check out Kurt Weill’s original version. And there it was, the whole long and developed melodic contour I was familiar with. Gil had simply laid it out, but he did it in such a way that made it feel improvised and continually evolving. The character was so completely different, that I would have never imagined it once had the lyric, “No you don’t just smile and pull your panties down when you have the chance of saying no.” Gil heard profound depth in that melody and spun his own universe out of it. If you know neither of these pieces, I recommend listening to Gil’s first and then purchasing the original on iTunes from the original cast album. You’ll hear how ‘Gil’s’ lines are just the melody, but wrung out at a slow searing tempo. But then there’s so much more to it.
How does Gil manage to simply take such a melody and make it entirely his? Well here, it starts with the combination of brushes, harp and bass flute, followed soon thereafter by a double reed, creating a combination of colors that few others would have used. Then there’s atmospheric texture of the rolling bass flute, and Gil’s signature feeling of time and no-time all at once (Gil is adept at creating a feel of imprecision by using very precise notation–an effect that no one I know can match). Then there’s Gil’s very quirky gestures on piano that are as personal as a fingerprint. You’ll also hear that ever-present tuba. The muted horn stab at 1:32 could only be his. But my favorite part starts at 2:10. He does a run up to a high sonority, a sonority that then slowly shifts and descends like a long slow exhale. In this passage, you’ll hear the melody on top, and inside, a wonderful slow descending mostly-chromatic line that, when it stops descending, continues to hold it’s final note for another 20 seconds until we reach another similar passage. The line writing as this passage descends is beyond spectacular. No one can make ‘slow’ more compelling than Gil, and he does it all with lines. At 3:21 the melody is voiced in a quirky way which has the odd interval of the minor-ninth, an interval that’s also evident in much of Gil’s piano accompaniment here. That dissonant minor-ninth is a ‘no-no’ in many an arranging class, but Gil built a world on that interval.
When Gil introduces Wayne Shorter’s tenor solo we’re already over five minutes into the piece–and that in itself is unique in the world of jazz arranging. Wayne plays gracefully over the low pyramids, and gesturally behind a crying flute and bassoon as they sing in unison double-octaves. This man finds endless colors in infinite combinations. The whole piece just weeps with beauty. If I could give this 500 out of 100 points, I would. It breaks the meter, because as Wayne Shorter himself once said that Miles said about the music that he loves: It’s music that goes way beyond music.
10.) TRACK: Zee Zee (Gil Evans)
ARTIST: Gil Evans
Album: Svengali (Koch Jazz KOC-CD-8518)
Musicians: Gil Evans (p,el-p,arr,cond); Marvin “Hannibal” Peterson (trumpet, solo); Richard Williams (trumpet); Joseph Daley (tuba); Sharon Freeman, Pete Levin (French horn); Billy Harper (tenor saxophone); Howard Johnson (tu,bar,flhrn); Trevor Koehler (bar,sop,fl); David Sanborn (as); David Horowitz (synt) Ted Dunbar (el-g) Herb Bushler (el-b) Bruce Ditmas (d) Sue Evans (perc) Composed by Gil Evans
Recorded: Jazz Festival, Philarmonic Hall”, New York, June 30, 1973
It’s hard for me to decide which song to take from Svengali. This album shook my world in about 1982, when I heard it for the first time. The whole thing has such a mystery to it. It was while listening to “Zee Zee” that I saw myself one day working with Gil. At the time, seeing that in my mind didn’t register as any true reality that would come to be, but, bizarrely and by sheer coincidence, it became reality. The piece is largely about atmosphere. The musical idea is simple. All the chords are moving chromatically in parallel motion and the bass simply passes from a minor I to a minor IV chord. There are chimes moving in the same pattern. To me, it recalls the wind, but the wind in a dark, brewing storm, the kind that blows through the window, shakes the shutter and turns the air green. Perhaps you have to come from tornado country to relate to that, but that’s where it takes me, and it’s interesting that the last sound is the sound of wind. I just love the essence of this. And I love that it’s all played out of time. Everyone just breathes and sighs the figure in tandem as Hannibal Marvin Peterson slowly builds in intensity and finally just wails over it. This piece is a total distillation of Gil to the most extreme: the type of harmony, the quirky intervals, the colors, the linearity, attention to the soloist, and, above all, the attention to evoking something that, once again, goes beyond music. How can something that is so spare compositionally and with so much free improvisation still be so completely and utterly Gil?
11.) TRACK: Up From the Skies (Jimi Hendrix)
ARTIST: Gil Evans
Album: The Gil Evans Orchestra Plays the Music of Jimi Hendrix
Gil Evans (keyboards,cond); Marvin “Hannibal” Peterson, Lew Soloff (trumpet); Peter Gordon (French horn); Peter Levin (fhr,synt); Tom Malone (trombone, bass trombone); Howard Johnson (tu,b-cl,el-b); David Sanborn (as,sop,fl); Billy Harper (ts,fl); Trevor Koehler (ts,as,fl); David Horowitz (el-p,synt); John Abercrombie, Ryo Kawasaki (electric guitars); Keith Loving (g) Michael Moore (bass guitar; electric bass); Don Pate (bass); Bruce Ditmas (drums); Susan Evans (d,cga,perc); Warren Smith Jr. (vib,mar, chimes, Latin perc)
Recorded; New York, June 11, 1974
It is a must to pick one of the pieces that Gil played regularly at Sweet Basil’s jazz club in Manhattan with the last band he had. This was always my favorite. It’s sonic fun! Who else on the planet could find a way to voice out a Hendrix tune and make it so completely hip, and retain something of the gutsiness that Hendrix had in his sound? Only Gil. I love where the bass clarinet lies in the voicings in relationship to the melody. There’s grit and ease at the same time. It’s just deliciously left of center. I love the spirit of the band and how they offer variation and nuance to the tune with the synthesizers and guitar. It’s so joyful. I got to see a sketch of this, and was shocked when I noticed that in harmonizing this melody he employed a technique very familiar to young arrangers called “drop-2.” We all tend to think of this technique as formulaic and non-creative. It’s the sound you’d hear in just about every sax soli in big band music. How Gil made it sound so fresh here is a mystery. Is it the character of the melody coupled with the way Gil tweaked the harmony within drop-2? I need more time to understand this myself. There’s even a story (I hope I have this right!) that Gerry Mulligan used to tell, where Gil came running up to him in utter amazement and enthusiasm about his new discovery about Duke Ellington. It was the last thing Gerry expected to hear when Gil exclaimed, “He uses DROP-2!!!!!” Or was it Gerry who told Gil? I can’t remember, but it was me screaming the same thing last week. “Gil used drop-2!!!!” Bask in the joy of this cut.
12.) TRACK: Easy Living Medley (Easy Living/Everything Happens to Me/Moon Dreams)
Artist: Dutch Jazz Orchestra
Album: Moon Dreams: Rediscovered Music of Gil Evans & Gerry Mulligan –Dutch Jazz Orchestra (Challenge, CHL 73275)
Musicians: Dutch Jazz Orchestra: Jeanine Abbas (flute); Marco Kegel (clarinet, saxophone, alto saxophone); Jan Oosthof (trumpet); Eric Ineke (drums).
Personnel: Martijn Van Iterson (guitar); Simon Rigter (flute, tenor saxophone); Albert Beltman (clarinet, alto saxophone); Ab Schaap (clarinet, tenor saxophone); John Ruocco (clarinet); Nils Van Haften (bass clarinet, baritone saxophone); Jan Hollander, Ray Bruinsma, Mike Booth, Ruud Breuls, Erik Veldkamp (trumpet); Morris Kliphuis, Roel Koster, Rene Pagen (French horn); Martijn Sohier, Ilja Reijngoud (trombone); Martien De Kam (tuba); Rob Van Bavel (piano); Jan Voogd (bass instrument).
For my last choice I’m going to offer something that 99% of you will not have heard, because it seems to have not been recorded until recently. To have a new work by Gil emerge out of the ether is to be bestowed with a gift more valuable than gold. Here is one such magical gift. In the liner notes of this album, they say he was experimenting with a new band that he’d only rehearsed. The instrumentation of this work consists of 3 flutes, 5 reeds, 2 French horns, 3 trumpets, 2 trombones, tuba, guitar, piano, bass and drums. It seems far more likely that this is actually something from the Thornhill band collection that was never recorded, or for which the tapes were lost. This piece has the precise instrumentation of “The Troubadour” and several other of Gil’s arrangements that Thornhill recorded in the same period (1946-1947). That offers a big clue. Never mind, though—the point is, it’s gorgeous. Of course, we all know “Moon Dreams” from Birth of the Cool, but here it is in even fuller orchestration. And clearly, then, the nonet version was a paring-down of this much more orchestral version written probably around three years before Birth of the Cool. This medley exhibits every characteristic that I’ve talked of until now: the exquisite inner melodies, the airy tuba parts, the delicate details that dovetail into each other moving from color to color in the orchestra. Just sit back, shut your eyes, and bathe in the sheer gorgeousness of this long-lost Gil treasure.
Maria Schneider DownBeat Article – 2014:
In 2005, shortly after receiving her first Grammy for her fourth release, Concert In the Garden, Maria Schneider pinpointed the significance of the honor. “It means something more to me than my view of myself,” she said. “People in the general audience may not be sure exactly what a Pulitzer is, but they know the Grammy as the ultimate music award.”
The composer, then 44, added that she herself had “dreamed of winning a Grammy” while growing up in Windom, Minnesota, an agricultural community of 3,600 in the state’s southwest corner. “I’d say my speech at home when nobody was looking,” she said. But in her brief 2005 remarks, delivered one day before the domain name http://www.youtube.com was activated, Schneider deviated from the “I want to thank my mother and father” script of childhood. Rather, she acknowledged the members of the Maria Schneider Orchestra, an entity since 1992, that had won the Best Large Ensemble category, and ArtistShare, which produced her self-funded Concert In the Garden. Later in 2005, Schneider would earn DownBeat Critics Poll honors for Composer of the Year, Arranger of the Year and Album of the Year. She repeated the DownBeat trifecta three years later for Sky Blue, and again in 2014 for Winter Morning Walks, both issued under ArtistShare’s imprimatur.
In 2014, Schneider spoke from the same Grammy podium to accept her Best Contemporary Classical Composition award for Winter Morning Walks, which comprises two through-composed song cycles commissioned and performed by soprano Dawn Upshaw (who earned a Grammy [Best Classical Vocal Solo], as did engineer Tim Martyn and producer David Frost). For the occasion, she delivered eloquent denunciations of digital file-sharing and Spotify that were quoted in national media and went moderately viral.
“I didn’t expect to win, but when Tim and Dawn were announced, I realized I’d better start thinking what to say, because this could happen,” Schneider said a few months later in her trim apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. “I feel I’ve been given a position, and I wasn’t going to fritter away this amazing opportunity. The second I got the award, I decided I’d say this is legalized theft, which is exactly what it is. Everybody went crazy and applauded. How long are we supposed to take this?”
It was time to discuss music. “I feel a little guilty,” Schneider said of her latest Grammy. “All these people push through that classical world their whole career, and I come in with this big grab. But I’ll take it.” She also expressed discomfort with DownBeat’s 2014 Best Arranger designation. “Arranging is a special art, taking a standard piece and reforming it,” she said. “It’s not the same as orchestrating.”
On Winter Morning Walks, Schneider applies her orchestrative powers to frame Upshaw’s intuitively penetrating interpretations of two very different suites. On “Stories,” set to Mark Strand’s translations of five ironic, melodramatic poems by Brazilian Carlos Drummond de Andrade (1902-1989), she provides the 34-piece St. Paul Chamber Orchestra intricate, sweeping scores. The title piece—performed by a strings only ensemble from the Australian Chamber Orchestra, with improvised sections from pianist Frank Kimbrough, bassist Jay Anderson and woodwindist Scott Robinson, all Schneider associates for two decades—comprises nine poems that Nebraskan Ted Kooser, a one-time American Poet Laureate, wrote while recovering from cancer.
Oswaldo Gojilov, one of several prominent contemporary composers who regard Upshaw as a muse, introduced her to Schneider with a gift of Concert In The Garden in proximity to Schneider’s first Grammy. “There aren’t many times these days where I actually fall in love with a CD,” Upshaw said by phone. “But I started to play this one over and over again in its entirety. It brought me joy at a difficult time in my personal life. Maria’s music has so much power, so unaffected and even ecstatic; it brings out the best in life. It was something new for me, and I wanted to hear it live.”
Upshaw attended Schneider’s annual Thanksgiving Week residence at Manhattan’s Jazz Standard, where they became acquainted. During a subsequent conversation, she began to envision a collaboration. “I thought perhaps we’d meet some place neither of us could imagine,” Upshaw said. “I’m drawn to chiseled musical voices, music that, when I hear it, touches me, and I feel I can live in that world and express myself. When I am most myself in somebody else’s music, I find that their music is like nobody else’s.”
It was a year or two before Upshaw—by now involved with SPCO programming as an Artistic Partner—“gathered the courage” to reveal her proposition. “Maria was scared at first because I came from another world, but I thought the possibilities were huge,” Upshaw said. “The melodies are so beautiful—and I do like to sing a good melody. I’m glad I acted on the impulse.”
The choice of repertoire and musical direction was entirely Schneider’s. “I’d sent Maria a few things that she didn’t go for, which was fine,” Upshaw says. “I think the composer will be most inspired by something they find on their own.” Schneider wanted something that was “almost folk poetry, not complex and difficult, but with a narrative, human element that my music has.” A Brazilian friend suggested Drummond, and Schneider—who has incorporated Brazilian elements in pieces like the contrapuntal “Choro Dançado” from Concert In the Garden—“went to town.”
“I thought my Brazilian music influence was a good meeting point with classical music,” she said. “You can play it without drums, and it has groove and tempo and time, which I put into the orchestral lines. The classical world is used to pulling ahead and falling behind, but a big band plays the beat right when the ictus of my hand is going down—not late, not early. At certain points I wanted that relentless time, which was a challenge for the players.”
For the follow-up, which debuted in June 2011 at the Ojai Classical Music Festival (music-directed by Upshaw), Schneider decided to compose a looser, sparer, more intimate opus for the Australian Chamber Orchestra, a string ensemble whose musicians stand and function without a conductor, and pianist Frank Kimbrough, woodwindist Scott Robinson and bassist Jay Anderson, all members of her band for more than two decades. Within the pared-down setting, she mirrors the interior, animistic quality of Kooser’s works, which evoke, Schneider observed, “the open prairie landscape that I come from, so pale in the winter—I don’t want to say bleak—and so beautiful.”
Beginning with 25 poems that she placed on a board above the upright piano in her living room-work space, Schneider culled nine pieces that most “spoke to me as music.” She referenced her orchestration of “Perfectly Still,” which opens the proceedings. “I could immediately imagine Frank playing these little crystalline, biting things,” she said. “Writing this, I was out on a limb, and being able to write for people I know so well made it easier. My music has gradually been getting closer to some realm that’s right in the middle of classical and jazz, where the improvisations are woven into the formal development of the music. So I decided to pull the strings and Dawn a little bit into my world by including my guys. Also, as opposed to big compositions, it was fun to write songs, short little nuggets, a defined melody as opposed to a melody that keeps developing throughout a piece.”
In constructing the songs, Schneider “forgot myself” in the texts and drew on first-hand observations of her collaborator’s tonal personality from their initial encounter. “The language gives a rhythmic and almost a melodic contour,” she said. “That took me out of the realm of genre and into the world of trying to evoke something from each poem. I also followed the sound of Dawn’s voice, which is such a beautiful tone, with a beautiful low range. I love the way she enunciates and projects the meaning of the words with a human depth and perspective.
“If I did something well on this, it’s that the music serves the poetry. Sometimes I hear classical music that deconstructs the words and the way someone would speak a phrase to a point where it’s unrecognizable. I don’t know why you would write for words if you don’t want to enhance the meaning of those words.”
Having her bandmates on board enabled Schneider to incorporate “spatial notation” that allowed them “to improvise textures with directions I provided. Some songs are very specific, but some are open, where the orchestra can hang on to things longer, and Dawn can sing out of time.” She added that during an 11-concert tour of Australia in February for which she wasn’t present, “Scott, Frank and Jay took more liberties each night, which made Dawn take more liberties, which made the orchestra do the same. By the end, everyone was smiling at each other, hearing the little things. It brought them to a point of more malleability as a whole group.”
As a concrete example of how keenly Schneider attends to “the little things,” Kimbrough presented an anecdote from the May 2012 recording date, soon after a Florida-to-Canada tour of Winter Morning Walks that she did supervise. “Maria is a perfectionist’s perfectionist, and she tweaked things right up to the last minute,” Kimbrough said. “While we were recording ‘Walking By Flashlight,’ I was playing a four-bar passage at the front, just quarter notes, before everything comes in. Maria stopped me on about the second bar and told me that I had rushed the second beat of the first bar. She hears with a microscope, and she was working with a producer and recording engineer who also hear on that level.”
As 2014 proceeds, Schneider’s itinerary includes several performances of Winter Morning Walks. She was also considering several commission offers, although she expressed ambivalence about taking on projects that incur continual “low-level stress.” “I’m not prolific, and I don’t churn things out,” she said, noting that a bout with breast cancer a decade ago had shaped her perspective on the matter. “I say no to a lot of things, even things maybe I shouldn’t say no to, because I know the psychological place I need to be to live. Commissions only turn into money later when you sell or perform the music, which is another reason why I like writing for my band. I pay for this stuff through gigs and especially clinics.”
As we spoke, Schneider was coming to grips with a $26,000 charge from the SPCO union in response to an accidental unit overage in the pressing of Winter Morning Walks. “It’s a $200,000 record; I had made $110,000 back, so I was at the $90,000 loss point, but now, overnight, it’s $116,000,” she said. “Sales are slow now. I’ll sell them at gigs, and people will perform the music, so in time it will pay for itself. But oh, my God, I can’t keep sliding backwards. I don’t have endless funds. A lot of people don’t think I struggle as much as I do.”
This being said, Schneider expressed her determination to follow through on a scheduled orchestra recording at the end of August. The 2015 ArtistShare release will document music she’s composed since the 2007 sessions that generated Sky Blue, including beyond-category pieces like “The Thompson Fields” and “Arbiters of Evolution,” which draw deeply on memories of her rural Minnesota childhood.
“I grew up in a town with no record store, with a complete hodge-podge of records in our house, everything from Peruvian music to Artur Rubinstein to albums by Artie Shaw and Earl Hines,” Schneider said. “I was never taught to have allegiance to any particular thing; everything I heard was, ‘Oh, that’s cool. That’s fun.’”
She became immersed in jazz after moving 300 miles east to Minneapolis to enroll at the University of Minnesota, where she majored in composition and music theory from 1979 until 1983. She is clear that it continues to animate her creative process.
“The classical world at the time was super hung up on atonality and serialism, and it almost felt you weren’t relevant if you didn’t join the program,” Schneider said. “To me the jazz world was much more cutting-edge, because it accepted all kinds of music on its own terms, from Cecil Taylor-like to Louis Armstrong-like, and everything in between. It felt like a world where I could find myself, because it was so open-minded, which I feel it is to this day—down to Downbeat asking me about Winter Morning Walks. It’s an incredible genre. I love it.”
Maria Schneider for Downbeat (May 21, 2014):
TP: I’d like to focus on Winter Morning Walks, and that portion of it more than the Carlos Drummond De Andrade, which Michael Gallant focused on when he wrote about you last time you won.
MS: You have the album. It’s not really jazz, but it has improvisation on it, you know…
TP: They’d like you to go into some detail about it, and then we should talk about your next projects, and jazz-related stuff.
MS: I’m recording at the end of August with the band again.
TP: We spoke in January for your JALC event.
MS: That ended up being really fun. They changed the acoustics there. It’s fabulous. We had a great gig. Johnathan Blake played drums, and he was amazing. It was really fun.
TP: Also, today I’ve been reading some recent interviews. There’s a pretty good one from Minnesota NPR, who got some interesting stuff. Here’s a quote for me. You said, “All these classical people work their whole career, pushing through that classical world, and then I just come through with a big grab…”
MS: Oh, yeah. That I feel guilty.
TP: I’d like you to take me through the process of putting together Winter Morning Walks. You wanted classical music, but you wanted improvisation as well.
MS: Yes. Absolutely.
TP: And you didn’t see the two as antithetical.
TP: I’m wondering, had you had some kind of breakthrough in the last few years that allowed you to do it? Does it seem like a logical evolution?
MS: I think my music has slowly and slowly been getting closer to some realm that’s really right in the middle of classical and jazz. The improvisation is important, but the formal development and using more space in my music, which really was inspired by the guys in my band, their beautiful sounds, their way of blending. Clarence Penn being willing to leave…to not play. All of that has made it possible for me to sort of find some place in between. So when I was writing for strings and Dawn, I thought, “Well, if I’m in the center, why not just start from that, the musicians on the other side. Let them reach across the divide by including Frank, Scott and Jay, and just pull them a little bit into my world, into that middle.” And really write songs. As opposed to big compositions, writing songs. It was fun.
TP: Melodies, you mean?
MS: Not melodies so much. Just short little nuggets. Little songs that are just… Yeah, I guess a defined melody as opposed to a melody that keeps developing and developing throughout a piece. It’s like a song. It was fun to do that, and to have the improvisational aspect be very simple, and to try to dovetail it so that it doesn’t feel like Jazz Meets Classical, but just feels like its own genre.
TP: How did you go about making it not like Jazz Meets Classical?
MS: Let me think about this. I guess by making the primary focus be the poetry, and Dawn’s melody, and being inspired by that, not by letting that lead where the melodies came from. The poetry, the language has a way of giving a rhythmic and also almost a melodic contour. So that sort of took me out of the realm of genre and into the world of trying to evoke something from the poetry, forgetting about genre. So I sort of forgot myself. I got lost in the poetry. And the sound of Dawn’s voice, which is not only just a voice, but such a beautiful tone. She also is so great in the way she enunciates and the way she projects the meaning of a song; in the same way that I feel Kate McGarrity does in the world of jazz, Dawn does in the world of classical. All of a sudden, the meaning of the words really comes through with a human depth and perspective. I love that.
TP: Did the experience of interacting on the Carlos Drummond de Andrade project have a big impact on your work on this piece?
MS: It did, because it made me want to do something contrasting, in a way, and made me want to… I mean, the poems, too, made me want to write more simply. Because I had Jay and Frank playing in a little bit of a jazz way here and there, it left it open to take some of the intricacy out of the strings and allow them to be simpler, because some of that rhythm and whatever was a bit…just in a few moments, it was almost like I had a rhythm section, as opposed to a more classical way of writing.
TP: Can you trace for me the story of your relationship with Dawn Upshaw? I gather she was a fan of yours.
MS: She used to come hear the band.
TP: She approached you and said she’d like you to do something.
MS: Yes, have me write something for her.
TP: How did that lead to the Stories piece?
MS: She wanted me to write something for her for St. Paul Chamber Orchestra.
TP: Is she also from Minnesota.
MS: She’s from Illinois, and she was working a lot with St. Paul Chamber Orchestra. She was their…I don’t know what you’d call it…kind of their artist-in-residence kind of thing. But she didn’t want to choose poetry. I was asking her if there were directions, and she wanted nothing to do with the direction of the music. I found the poetry through a friend who’s from Brazil. I wanted poetry that was very human and storytelling, and not… I didn’t want complex, difficult poetry. I wanted very human level, almost folk kind of poetry. This friend turned me on to Drummond, and then I found the translations by Mark Strand, and then I kind of went to town.
For me, choosing Brazilian poetry was also because I felt that the influence that Brazilian music had on my music was a good meeting point with classical music. If you think about pieces of mine like “Choro Dancado,” which is on Concert in the Garden, it’s very intricate and has lots of counterpoint… The piece isn’t really a Brazilian choro, but it’s, say, choro-light, or choro-like-light…
TP: Choro-esque maybe we could say.
MS: Let’s say choro-esque. That music you can play without drums, and it has rhythm and time. So the music that I wrote for SPCO was, in a way, like my music, because I tried to put time and rhythm into the orchestral lines. Whereas a lot of classical music doesn’t have propulsion of rhythm like jazz does, my pieces did have quite a lot of that. It was a challenge for the players.
TP: That music seems a little denser than Winter Morning Walks.
MS: It is.
TP: And it seems to suit the tone of the poetry also.
MS: Yes, because the poetry is a little dark.
TP: It’s not only dark, but it’s very social. Relationships are explored. It’s like reading Jorge Amado or something. Whereas the Kooser poems are very interior…
MS: Yeah, and the Kooser also is evocative of a very… This is the part that I can relate to, because Kooser comes from where I come from. It’s evocative of a very…I don’t want to say bleak, but prairie landscape, very open, in the winter very pale, in a way. So the music doesn’t have a lot of emotional drama. It has definitely emotion in it, but not drama. The Drummond has a lot of melodrama. Some of those poems do. Not all of them.
TP: There’s a certain amount of irony in Drummond, whereas in Kooser if there’s irony it’s very well hidden. I haven’t listened enough to the music to say anything, but I heard certain sounds in the Drummond denoting that.
MS: Yeah, definitely.
TP: The Kooser music makes you cry.
MS: Yes. The poems are so beautiful. On my board here, I put up 25 of his poems that I thought I might be able to use, and then just slowly picked out ones that spoke to me as music. You can love a poem, but it just doesn’t make music.
TP: What was the first one you set to music?
MS: Perfectly Still was the first one. I could immediately imagine Frank playing these little crystalline, biting… I was thinking about Frank, and he was a little bit a lifeline in this, too. Writing these kind of things, I’m sort of out on a limb. The Winter Morning Walks, having Frank, Scott and Jay there, writing for people I know so well, that made it easier.
TP: Whereas that wasn’t the case for Drummond…
MS: Yeah, I didn’t know the orchestra. I’m used to writing… I almost don’t take commissions any more unless they’re for my own band, because I just want to write for my guys. I know them, and I feel like that relationship…through that steadiness I am able to evolve in a way, compositionally, slowly… It’s so comfortable. I love that.
TP: Did you deliberately use different musical language in Winter Morning Walks? Was it the poetry telling you what to do?
MS: It was just the poetry telling… Yes, the poetry led the way. I do think if there’s something on this that I think I did really well, it’s that the music serves the poetry. That was really important to me. When I listen to people writing classical music for a classical singer, sometimes it’s almost like they deconstruct the words, and deconstruct the actual way in which somebody would speak something, to a point where it’s not recognizable. I don’t know why you would write for words if you didn’t want to almost enhance the meaning of those words. That was just important to me. That’s what was exciting about the project.
TP: In a couple of interviews you’ve done about this, you’ve remarked that you were initially a classical student, and your knowledge was autodidactic and sketchy. Your piano teacher played stride piano, so you kind of knew about Tatum and other people. And then a teaching assistant told you they heard jazz in your work…
MS: You’re mixing stories. Sort of. It’s almost exactly right. When I went to college I started listening to so much jazz, and suddenly I was in a city where there was a record store. At home, it was sold in a clothing store. It was three hours from Minneapolis. I started listening to public radio, and they had a jazz show, so suddenly I was hearing Bill Evans. A friend down the hall lent me of his records, and he lent me Coltrane with McCoy. So all of a sudden, I was just launched ahead decades. Then I started discovering things going backwards. He gave me Herbie Hancock, Headhunters, so I heard that before even early Herbie Hancock or even hearing Herbie with Miles. Then I kind of worked my way backwards.
The classical world at the time, it seemed to me, was so super hung up on atonality and serialism, and it almost felt like you had to join the program, otherwise you were just not with the program.
TP: You’re not relevant.
MS: Exactly. That’s a great word for it. Then my composition teacher started hearing a lot… I guess I was always talking about jazz things I loved. Then he said, “there’s a big band…” They had no jazz program. But he said, “there’s a big band; why don’t you go watch and rehearse and write something for them.” Which was such a great thing for a man to say that had studied with Hindemith. He was a great, great teacher.
TP: Hindemith liked jazz, I think.
TP: Well, Andrew Hill was in contact with him somehow.
MS: Really? I don’t know where Paul Fettler… It’s funny. I thought Paul Fettler had died, and he wrote me recently. He said, “I’m not dead.” I must have said in an interview… Oh, no, because I got an honorary doctorate at the U-of-M, and one of the teachers heard me say, “The late Paul Fettler,” and he wrote to me from Florida and said, “I’m alive.” He was a great man. I guess I could ask him about Hindemith’s relationship to jazz.
Anyway, I started writing for the big band. What I found was, oddly, the classical world that wanted to be so cutting-edge…the jazz world, to me, in a way, was more cutting-edge, because it was accepting of all kinds of music on its own terms. It could be Cecil Taylor-like or Louis Armstrong-like. Everything in between. The world… There were so many different facets, and there were people interested in anything and all of it. So I felt like it was a world where I could find myself. I loved the improvisation. Also maybe part of it was, because the school didn’t have a jazz program, and I fell in love with that music, it made me this very curious, searching individual. So I would search for people in the community to study with—writing and piano and everything. I’d get together with other classmates and students, and talk about harmony and show each other things we learned. I think it’s a really healthy way to develop. And Liebman came to the school. I asked him if he would look at one of my compositions, and he came to the practice room and he gave me some ideas that to this day I…
TP: He was constructive.
MS: Oh my God, he was fabulous. I loved him. It was a world that I just loved, because it was so open-minded, and I feel that, to this day, it is—down to Downbeat asking me about Winter Morning Walks. It’s really amazing. It’s an incredible, almost all-encompassing genre. I love it, and I love the community of people and the open-mindedness that most of them have.
TP: In working with these two orchestras… Apart from using improvisers in Winter Morning Walks… I don’t know how much language would be unfamiliar to the Australian orchestra if they weren’t involved in jazz. But there are elements in the Drummond that are jazz-like, more related, it seems to me…that are more recognizable as you…
MS: You could recognize the Maria in me more in the Drummond. Maybe because you’re used to my intricate orchestration.
TP: Whatever the case, talk a bit about how they responded to those elements of your language.
MS: I think both orchestras really enjoyed it. I think that the challenge with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra was that the music had groove and had tempo and time. We’re used to in jazz…when there’s time, time means time. It means don’t be late, don’t be early. It’s like be on time. The classical world is used to pulling ahead and behind on certain phrases, and at certain points I just wanted this relentless time. Sometimes I just wanted to put on a click track and force them to play to a click track. I didn’t do that, but that was the challenge. So the aspect that was, I would say, their encounter with the jazz world on that music was the time aspect. That was the challenge.
With the Australian Chamber Orchestra, they don’t use a conductor, which already makes them a little bit more jazz-like. Sometimes St. Paul doesn’t. There was more out-of-time improvisation in the Winter Morning Walks. There was stuff where that was just spatially notated, and they could sort of improvise textures with certain directions that I gave them. So the music was actually, in some ways, in some moments, a little bit improvisatory in Winter Morning Walks. They really had to key into each other. They took that on tour in Australia. I wasn’t there. But Scott, Frank and Jay said that they really got into it, and Scott, Frank and Jay took more and more liberties every night, which made Dawn take more liberties, which made the orchestra… They said that by the end they were all looking at each other and smiling, and hearing all the little things. So it brought them to a point of more malleability as a whole group.
So I think both experiences have encountered with jazz. Winter Morning Walks was more the looseness, the collective improvisation. The St. Paul Chamber Orchestra was the aspect of jazz time. Those were the challenges.
TP: Moving back to Minnesota: at what sage as an undergraduate did you start becoming acquainted with the big band tradition?
MS: I would say at the end of my first year, getting into my second year. Then I started going to the rehearsals of the big band all the time. The big band was pretty good. It wasn’t great, probably. To me, it was really good. But the director was quite well known. His name was Dr. Frank Bencrushuto(?). He was a good friend of Bill Evans. He’s died. My big regret is I missed… Bill Evans came to town and I didn’t even know it. It was before I knew. I’d just come to Minnesota. It was one of the last things he did, I think.
TP: He died in September 1980.
MS: Yeah, and I started college fall of 1979. He was there, and I didn’t know, and within a year, I was a complete Bill Evans freak—and I’d missed my moment.
TP: In doing your early big band charts, were you transcribing stuff off records…
MS: Just trying to write. Listening to things. Not so much transcribing, but listening a lot. Watching scores go by when the big band would rehearse. Just listening to everything from “Splanky” with the Basie band, to Mingus, to Gil Evans, to Thad Jones. I love Thad Jones. I listened to a whole variety of things, and just… Then in graduate school, I got into Bob Moses’ things. Just taking it all in and trying everything. Everything from Rob McConnell, the clean, blended stuff, and then the open forms of Bob Brookmeyer, to the loudness of Mingus and the exuberance of Thad Jones. There’s a great book… I studied them out of books. There was a really great book (it might be out at the house) where it takes charts by Brookmeyer, Thad Jones, Neal Hefti, and it analyzes them and what makes them each unique. Their writing and orchestration is so different.
TP: I don’t want to do a gotcha thing, but did Ellington come into the picture during those years?
MS: Oh, yeah. Do you know The Greatest Concert In The World? It’s on Pablo. It’s got everything in it. Ella sings with the band…
TP: Like Cote d’Azur, ‘64 or ‘65 or ‘66.
MS: It’s not that, but I have that, too. But this set was… I listened to it constantly. “Don’t Be That Way.” “You’ve Changed.” Ella singing. Actually, that’s what I was playing in my room… No, I guess it came later. And I had older Ellington from the ‘30s that came out on Smithsonian. So Ellington was definitely in there, too.
TP: In our last conversation, because it was a JALC event, I mentioned that your band’s history and Wynton’s band’s history has spanned exactly the same timeline.
MS: It’s true. But they are so different.
TP: You said that Wynton might be more explicitly about Ellington, whereas yours is more about letting life tell you what to do, writing with the musicians… You’ve put yourself in that position as well.
MS: Here’s what I think. I think that everything comes… You know how they say for young kids, that basically the blueprint of your life is made before you even get to school, like in pre-kindergarten and all. I think that the blueprint of our life musically comes really early on. So look at Wynton’s early life. His father was a musician, everything steeped in the tradition of New Orleans.
TP: He was a teacher.
MS: He was a teacher, and he learned this lineage and this respect, and he’s also coming up with African-American culture in New Orleans, playing jazz.
I’m from Minnesota. I’m this kid who grows up in a town with no record store, with a complete hodge-podge of records in our house, everything from Peruvian music to Rubenstein to an old Artie Shaw album, and maybe an Earl Hines album. It’s just this odd mix of stuff, with no…never really being taught that you had to have an allegiance to anything or whatever. So everything that came, it was like, “Oh, that’s cool. That’s fun.” But it’s all against the landscape of my life, which was pretty much being outdoors a lot. So I hear music against this landscape of Nature, pretty much, and I hear music as being an expression of life, not music being an expression of musical tradition.
Actually, I think that’s a great explanation of why Wynton is who he is, and why I am who I am, and why our worlds don’t really intersect so much. But maybe do in some ways. Because then I became, obviously, much more analytical when I got older.
TP: Remember that Wynton was playing classical music before jazz. Although he was playing in marching bands. This is a Grammy-winning classical trumpeter, and an autodidact composer.
MS: I’m not even so much talking about classical music. I’m more talking about the jazz aspect. How he came up, and what your attitude is about the people that came before. If you ask me what inspired me most about Gil Evans, I would talk about the lines, the orchestration and everything, but the biggest thing that inspired me about Gil was knowing him and seeing how devoted he was to being himself made me want to do the same thing for myself. And Brookmeyer, too. “Wow, these guys are such a concentrated, intense thing of developing their own voice. I want to do that for myself.” Whereas somebody else, if they came up more in a lineage of…came up more like Wynton, next to Gil Evans from a young age, it might be more like, “I’m going to carry on the tradition of Gil Evans as Gil Evans might have done,” continuing on.
TP: Like what Ryan Truesdale is doing.
MS: Yeah, maybe. His thing is a little bit different, because in doing this music he’s like a musical archaeologist, finding all this music and putting it together, and unearthing all these beautiful things. That’s like another thing, maybe. I think if Ryan gets out there writing his own music more, I don’t know that it would be in the style of Gil.
TP: I don’t remember hearing your music before the first recording. Retrospecting, could you pinpoint when you started to become you?
MS: Studying with Bob Brookmeyer. My early pieces, we still play them… We used to play one all the time, called “Bird Count,” which is very Mingus-like. “Gumba Blue,” which was on my first recording, but it was pre Bob Brookmeyer—I wrote it in college. It is a little bit Gil Evans-inspired and influenced. But it was Brookmeyer who just started asking me, everything I did, “Why did you do that?” and I started realizing…
TP: The Socratic method.
MS: What does that mean?
TP: Asking questions constantly…
MS: Yeah. Why did you do that? Why did you put that there? I started to realize that much of what I did was sort of like putting up a pre-fab house. I sort of thought, “Well, this is what you do.” Like, I’d be sitting here (at the piano) writing maybe (or not here, but someplace), and always thinking, “Can I do that? Can I do that?” Then Bob made me start to think more audaciously about what do I want to do; there’s infinite possibilities. So as I started asking myself more questions about, “What do I want to write?” my music became my own as I gave myself permission to think outside of the norm. That was Bob. And not intentional. When I told Bob later he did that for me, he was like: “What? I did what? Oh, I don’t know about that.” But he did.
TP: By “thinking outside the norm,” you mean?
MS: Like, he would say, “Why is there a solo here?” Because the tune happened as a jazz piece; now there’s a solo. “Well, what else could there be?” Or, “Why is the soloist soloing on these chord changes?” “I don’t know, isn’t that what soloists solo on?” “No, actually, they could solo on…” There’s other choices.
TP: You’ve mentioned in a number of interviews, and also said to me…you told me this in 2005 on WKCR… Since 2000, you’ve changed your intentions (perhaps that’s the best word, or maybe not) for composition, that you wanted to enfold the improvising into the composition, and that your pieces were more directed, whereas before there was more soloistic freedom…
MS: Yeah, now it’s going back.
TP: Yes, in January you said you wanted to move back.
MS: It’s all changed…
TP: Can you speak to what’s brought you to this path?
MS: My solo sections used to be quite open. On Evanescence there’s solos on “Green Piece,” on “Evanescence”—there are kind of these open vamps. Sometimes, it would feel, when I’d bring the band back in, that it sort of was this openness and now it’s composed. It didn’t always feel like it had a compositional flow throughout the piece, that the piece had a constant feeling of inevitability. So I wanted to start building in this sense of inevitability, and being sure that the piece would develop emotionally as I intended. So, you know, “Hang Gliding” has very intricate changes that keep developing. There’s a lot of pieces of mine that are like that. “Cerulean Skies” and various things, I guide the chordal development underneath the soloists.
Simultaneously to that, we would always be playing some of my older pieces in concert. The band started really embracing the freedom, because the contrast between those two aesthetics is quite marked, and the band started going further in the pieces with the freedom. But I think because of the other compositions, I think they more and more got that… Maybe. I don’t know. Maybe it was just playing the music for longer and longer. But I think collectively, everybody got more and more of the hang and the concept of this continual development of the piece, so that even though they were taking these free sections further away, they were landing the plane back into the airport with greater and greater precision. You know what I mean? It wasn’t like a crash landing when it came back in. It was almost like they took it upon themselves to find ways to really link in to my music, and really have it feel like the two things would really elide. As a result, I started to discover that my band has now developed this way of improvising within a composed… I don’t think it would work necessarily with just any band. My guys improvise like real composers. So it’s made me not on every piece want to write open and free, but it’s made me feel like I can embrace that a little bit.
TP: I don’t recall when you told me this, but you offered George Flynn’s description of the band as “a flock of birds.”
MS: Oh, all turning on a dime. It is more and more like that.
TP: Even on the older, more open pieces.
MS: Especially on the older, more open pieces. Because they know them so well, so they know how far they can take it. To the point where Scott Robinson… Maybe I told you this. We played in Japan.
TP: Tell me.
MS: It was our last night in Japan, and at the end of the night I was introducing the band, and I said, “And this is Scott Robinson…well, he plays every instrument; sometimes he even pulls things out of his pocket; you never know what he’s going to play.” We had just paid everybody, because it was right before… He pulls out of his pocket a check. Everybody laughed, like, “what are you going to do on a check?” Well, we played “Green Piece,” which is very open, and it happened to be his solo. He started playing. He held the check between his lips like a reed, right up to the microphone, and started vibrating. Frank, who has a perfection of an ear, heard it and started making harmony out of it, and then it slowly developed into Scott playing baritone, and then it gloriously just fell back into what the band needed to play. It was amazing! That’s what I mean. It’s gone to the moon now.
TP: With Winter Morning Walks, there’s a kind of…I wouldn’t call it full circle, but you’re dealing with subject matter that’s very close to home, as you have with “The Thompson Fields,” which I believe you’re going to record on the next record.
TP: One think that was in the back of my mind a few hours ago, when I was reading about the jackhammering behind this apartment, was your relationship to New York. Having access to musicians like Frank and Scott is one reason why one wants to be in New York, because that’s where you find those sorts of…
MS: Characters and people, yes.
TP: But talk to me a bit about how New York has influenced you.
MS: that’s hard to say.
TP: Well, in 2005, you were talking about this neighborhood as a village…
MS: It’s not so much that way any more. It’s true. You feel it changing.
TP: I’m a lifelong New Yorker, Maria. My reference point is 1969-1970.
MS: What does it feel like now to you?
TP: Like the suburbs.
MS: Yeah, it’s lost a lot of its charm. One of the sad things for me is that Times Square…all those old hotels… I worked there a lot as a copyist in the ‘80s and early ‘90s. I don’t know why they wouldn’t renovate those beautiful old buildings.
TP: Instead of tearing them down?
MS: Yeah. And have Times Square feel like a retro, beautiful…but well taken-care-of. Why didn’t they do that?
TP: Instead of Hong Kong?
MS: Hong Kong. It feels like Hong Kong. It’s horrible. I mean, Hong Kong has its own thing. But Times Square should not be that. It’s really sad to me. Ok, I understand Donald Trump… We signed a deal with the devil, and he fixed up the whole West Side, the bike path and everything. But those buildings that came up over here, they’re just horrible.
TP: The ones along the Hudson River, the West Side Highway.
MS: Yeah, the skyscrapers over there. They are just so ugly, soulless, lifeless. Humanless. New York has lost some of its charm for me. I hate to say that, because I was in love with this city. I moved here in ‘85, and just loved it. Loved the rawness of it.
TP: There was still rawness to be found in ‘85.
MS: Yes, there was.
TP: Did you live here?
MS: I lived in Astoria.
TP: When did you move here?
MS: In ‘92. Astoria was wonderful. I came in every day to Times Square to work as a music copyist, and going past all the porn clubs, and this-and-that, and 8th Avenue or 9th Avenue at night, man, you wouldn’t even walk over there. It was just chain-link fence and creepy. It’s changed so much.
TP: If you lived in New York at a certain point, you can fetishize the grime and corruption…
TP: …even though it wasn’t so great at the time.
MS: It wasn’t great. It was scary and everything. But I think it could have cleaned up and kept some of the Old World charm. I feel like they lost that. Some of the zoning, I can’t even believe… Or it was allowed that these people did this to the middle of a New York block.
TP: But as far as your music, there’s a very firm sense of place in Winter Morning Walks or “Thompson Fields.”
TP: I’m wondering, in your broader body of work, if there’s a sense of New York…
MS: I don’t think so, and I don’t know why. I mean, now that you come to say that. I think it has to do with what I was saying earlier. I think that we basically are where we started, and our roots are our roots. It’s like when Clarence Penn came to Windham, and he was just in shock. We were at this place, the Bergen Bar. Four cornfields meet, and there’s a bar there and a couple of houses. Clarence is sitting there, he’s like, “Ok, you’ve got to tell me; do you feel more like this or the Maria I know in New York? I just don’t even get this, how you could be from here?” I said, “Well, I’m actually much more this.”
TP: You remarked that growing up in the rural space, you create your own fun growing up. You were telling me about the carp wrestling, Crisco and mudhole.
MS: Yeah! I was just back there. I was out birding, and we went to this native prairie and just watched the bobalinks, and then we watched and observed swallows, and we found three kinds of tree swallows, all hanging, watching their behavior at night over the water, and looking up on the internet why do they feed like that at certain times of year… That’s my…
TP: Didn’t your mother have birds? Crows…
MS: Yeah, we had crows. Talking crows.
TP: And the town made you put them in jail.
MS: Lock them up. I told you all this! I always wanted to write a piece called “Joe The Crow.”
TP: I thought the Crisco thing could be a piece, and the crow is another…
MS: Also we had a goose, Lucy the Goose. Lucy the Goose could be a piece, but Joe the Crow might be a piece, yeah.
TP: Back to Winter Morning Walks: In interacting with Dawn Upshaw, how specific were you in her interpretation?
MS: I let her do it, and then here and there I said a couple of things. If there was a word or something I wanted her to wait on… But she had a lot of ideas, too. “I want to sing this line like this; it needs to…” I learned a lot from her about the focus of a line, and where it needs to lead with an intention of going somewhere. I feel like I learned a lot from her. So I gave her some direction; she gave me some, because I was conducting. Well, not Winter Morning Walks, but the other one, where I was conducting, she told me… She had a lot of opinions about things. So it was good.
TP: Perhaps you incorporated some of that information in the way you wrote for her on Winter Morning Walks.
MS: Probably. I learned a lot. She has such a beautiful low range. I utilized that in Winter Morning Walks. She’s great. She’s amazing.
TP: Are there plans for future collaboration?
MS: Maybe. I don’t know. She’s performing that this summer in Tanglewood, they’re performing it in Ravinia, and we’re going to do it together with the students at University of Miami, maybe in New York with Mannes School. There’s all sorts of…
TP: So to what extent do you need to be there for your music to be properly…
MS: This is bizarre. For my band music, I know I’m a pretty important part of it. I know that, because I’ve heard groups play my music, and I’m like, “Oh God, I wish I could just work with them a little,” and even my band…
He wants to do it at Mannes, and that I probably will conduct. I think Winter Morning Walks is probably ok without me conducting, and I think Drummond might be even better without me conducting. Conducting a real classical piece is really difficult, and I’m very limited in what I can do because of what I’m used to doing. If you conduct a piece in time, you know, with my big band, we’re both exactly in time together. They are feeling it… When I go BUHM, they are BUHM. The ictus of my hand going down is right when they play the beat. In a classical orchestra, they’re behind. So if you’re doing something in time, you have to be in front of them. I cannot physically do that. That’s like asking a dancer to dance some milliseconds in front of the music. It’s physically impossible. So the orchestra kept telling me I was behind. I’m like, “I’m not behind. Let’s be together.” But their idea of together is to be behind me. So if I’m with them, then they keep going slower and slower. Oh my God, it was so hard for me to do that.
TP: so there is an instance where you’re not speaking the same language.
MS: We’re not speaking the same language, no. They are also not used to a lot of stuff where Time is the Almighty God. So I actually think the Drummond would be better served by a real conductor.
TP: So in these instances, you don’t do…there’s nothing experimental about it. The pieces are written, notated, and have to be played that way each time. It’s not the Ellington mode of shifting things around…
MS: Winter Morning Walks is like that. It stretches and is open, and the orchestra can hang on to things longer, then Dawn can sings out of time. Things are very spatially notated rather than specific. Some songs are specific, but some are very open. But the Drummond is very specific.
TP: What’s the trigger for the open sections…
MS: Oh, following Dawn. I wrote in all their parts, so they can see what each other is playing so they can watch it go by and be together. I had to do it that way, because the orchestra doesn’t use a conductor. So I had to figure out how to make it visually look so that they can see, when Dawn sings this word, she sings “light,” I have to hit this note. Then I put her words there with a little line going down, meaning “line up with this,” because she’s slightly out of time. “When I switched on a light,” they… “In the barn loft late last NIGHT,” and they’ve got to hit with that. If it’s spatially notated, how would they know where she is? I had to come up with my own kind of notation for that. That piece sounds very simple, but it’s actually not.
TP: I had a question that I think you answered, but… When I saw you over Thanksgiving at the Jazz Standard, you were playing “A Potter’s Song” all the time, and you said in January that you rewrote it.
MS: Yes, it’s so much better.
TP: You said you were reworking another one, “Arbiters of Evolution.”
MS: Yes. “Potter’s” was hideous. It’s really beautiful now. I hated it before, and I really love it now. Now it’s my favorite thing on the record. I think we’ll probably open with “Potter’s Song” on the record.
TP: Do most of your pieces mutate?
MS: They always mutate a little bit. They’re not over until I can sleep. “Potter’s” I was just not happy with. Even Jay Anderson spoke to me after we went to Japan in December, and he said, “It’s so beautiful when it gets to the chord changes.” I said, “Yeah.” So what I ended up doing… That’s a piece where I basically wrote a song, and then I came up with all these changes behind Gary Versace, and the changes went to all these harmonically beautiful places that I wrote after I wrote the initial song, and I ended up loving it. So what I went back and did was then take that harmony and go back and put the melody in the beginning through a prism of the melody, and redeveloping the whole beginning. Now the whole thing feels so…
Writing is not a linear thing. If it is, you miss… Sometimes you have to go back and say, “Ok, I love where I got; now I have to work my way backwards,” start again to make that sound inevitable. Inevitability doesn’t come by just writing linearly. It’s the same thing for writing an article, right? Sometimes you come up with your whole thing maybe at the end. So then you work your way back…
TP: You might have written the whole thing, and then you cut everything out…
MS: Except the one thing and start over again. But it took maybe 10 pages to get to that. This woman I’m working with lives near where our house is. I met her in an outdoor farmer’s market, and she said, “Are you Maria Schneider?” She’s a really great graphic designer. She said to me recently, “You know, you’ve got to put down a lot of ugly to get to pretty.” Not meaning that everything has to be pretty, but meaning that you’ve maybe got to write a lot of pages to get to the one pearl that then you go back and rewrite everything. It’s the same with music. Sometimes it comes, and it’s just right the first time. But a lot of times it doesn’t. People always say, “When do you know you’re done?” I don’t know I’m done until I don’t think about it all night when I’m sleeping. When I can sleep, then I know I’m done.
TP: Dance and sculpture. When you talk, you make dancing motions.
MS: Mmm-hmm. I’m Italian. No, I’m kidding. I’m not.
TP: well, Germans dance, too. You’re German, yes?
MS: German, Dutch and French.
TP: Two questions. How aware of painting and sculpture were you before you got to Minneapolis?
MS: Oh, very. Because my sister Kate is a painter. She was very artistic. My mom had tons of books on painters. My mom was very into the arts. She was a very loving-the-arts kind of person, loving music and art.
TP: she played some piano, yes?
TP: But there’s a sort of synthesia that you describe, translating volumetric ideas into music, or dancing to get the right time feel…
TP: Is that a constant for you?
MS: Not always.
TP: You did one dance piece for Pilobilus, I think you said.
MS: That opened me up a lot. Generally, I think I’m more visual than I am… It’s funny, because people…
TP: You’re not a Schillinger person.
MS: Oh, you mean mathematics. That’s interesting. Here’s the thing. I think they’re both the same. This is really interesting, because I’ve been trying to come up with a name for a brand-new piece I just wrote, and I don’t have a name for it yet. I was trying to write something beautiful. I found this thing on the internet where there’s a place in the brain where they can do an MRI and see what parts of the brain light up. So they had different people that see things that they perceived to be beautiful, and this place that they call Field-A1 lights up. That same place in the brain lights up when they took post-doc students who understood a lot about mathematics. They would show them different mathematical equations, and the equations that distilled into very simple ideas, like the Theory of Relativity or whatever, the same…them looking and thinking about the equation, the exact same place in the brain would light up. And, what’s really bizarre is they took people who understood nothing about mathematics, and they showed them those same equations, and the same place lit up in the brains of those people with the same equations. So almost as if there’s something inherent…the beauty somehow vibrates in that mathematical equation.
Don’t ask me what it means. But what I would say is that there’s math and there’s math. Because they were all equations. I definitely use what I would call math in trying to find solutions for my music. For instance, when I was trying to figure out “A Potter’s Song,” I did heavy analysis about that middle section, and harmonically how that’s going to work. It doesn’t mean I write with an equation. But I’m always looking to distill things down to find the simple, elegant solution that makes the whole piece vibrate within one kind of universe. To me, that is where the beauty comes. Because everything in our universe is mathematical and full of proportion and geometry…
TP: Sure. Or the Golden Mean in Renaissance painting.
MS: Exactly. The way our bodies are formed and everything. We’re part of that. So I don’t really separate as much the intuitive from the mathematical, except what I try to do is, when I write things intuitively, later I go back and analyze it, and look for the math beneath that my sort of subconscious brain was understanding, and try to bring it up to the surface so I understand it, so that I can use my understanding to bring even more to that idea than what I was able to intuitively.
TP: You’ve talked to me a couple of times about balancing output and productivity—getting stuff out, meeting commissions, meeting deadlines, generating material for a new record, which has taken a number of years—with the need for “leaving the field fallow,” as you say. Although I have a feeling you’re always working in one way or another, even in the fallow time.
MS: I am. I always dream of more time just…
TP: Your brain isn’t going to shut off.
MS: Not shutting off, but just doing some gardening or…
TP: How is that going anyway? The fallow…
MS: Well, I was just at the point… Because I thought I’d finish this one point, then I’d let a little fallow happen. Then the person I can’t talk about came forth, and wants something, and then what am I going to do, say no?
TP: I’m sure he’s paying you well.
MS: I’m not sure. We haven’t discussed that. We’ll find out. [OFF THE RECORD] I don’t want to sully the relationship. Is that the word?
TP: I guess it could be the word. It’s an interesting interpretation of what would happen if you talked about it…
MS: Talked about it, yes. Then I asked somebody and they said, “Oh, he’s notorious for being cheap.” Really? Oh, God.
TP: Well, it does segue into what I intended to ask you about. Since you do independently produce your recordings, and you’ve been public about the cost of putting your music. You’ve also said about he-who-shall-not-be-named that there’s a certain fear factor, an apprehension, but of course you’re going to take it on. “Well, can I do this…but of course I’m going to take it on,” is a constant trope for you.
MS: Yeah. I hate that.
TP: Spending $30,000 to make your first recording, then earning back $10,000, but accepting it. This recording you said cost $200,000…
MS: Yeah, and I just got charged another $26,000 by the union. It was a limited pressing agreement, and I printed 10,000, which includes like 1500 promo copies, and the printer made more than they were supposed to make, so now I’m stuck paying another 26-grand. A $200,000 record; I had made $110,000 back. So I was to the $90,000 loss point. Now I’m at the $116,000 loss point. Overnight. Literally, I have to pay it next week. It really sucks. Now the sales are quite slow. I’ll sell them at gigs, and people are going to be performing the music… I believe in time it will pay for itself, but it will pay for itself in other ways. This record was a bit of an odd thing, and I wanted to do it, but oh my God, I can’t keep sliding backwards. I don’t have endless funds. It’s really rough. Believe me, it’s rough. And I committed to making this record this summer, and I’m not going to not do it, because getting all the guys together is really hard, and the timing is right, and so I’m just going to trust that people through my website are going to come through, and I’m going to plea and beg and hope that it comes. I think it will. This was a harder sell than my band.
TP: You need a McArthur or Doris Duke grant.
MS: Man, that would be nice.
TP: It’s hard for me to believe that you haven’t received one. I wonder what that tells us about the politics of the grant world.
MS: I’ve had more people tell me they were asked and wrote a letter.
TP: I really do find it hard to believe. I’m not buttering you up. I support the people who get it. But given your accomplishment to this point…
MS: I think a lot of people out there think that I’m…
TP: You’re an establishment figure.
MS: Yeah, and that I don’t struggle as much as I do. Because I do portray the success of what I’m doing, which is true. Sky Blue paid for itself. Concert In The Garden paid for itself. But it’s a shit-ton of work. Busting my ass on this thing was a challenge. But in order to get the Doris Duke thing, you have to have applied for a Chamber Music grant. Now, I should see if I could apply for one to re-orchestrate Winter Morning Walks for small group. I don’t know if they would give me that. I haven’t wanted to take off time to write something for small group when I have a thousand other things. But if I did that, I’m pretty sure I would get maybe a $200,000 grant or something after that. I’d probably be chosen for a Doris Duke grant. But when am I going to do that?
TP: Anthony Braxton went into debt after his MacArthur, because he put everything into his opera. He wound up with a big tax liability.
MS: That sucks. The curse of a MacArthur, I’ve often thought… I’m often like everything is fine, everything happens for a reason. The curse of a MacArthur is everybody thinks, “Oh, wow, she’s got money; she can pay for this.” After the taxes, it’s not that much money. God grateful, I am getting by and managing. This year is going to be a struggling, but next year I won’t be hemorrhaging as much money, and it will be better.
TP: So you now are refocusing on the band.
MS: Yes. Somebody came to me and they want me to write something for a major singer, classical. I would love to say yes, but I’m so scared to. And do I want to just concentrate on the band for a while? The other thing I hate is having three commissions on deck, one after the other. It feels like someone has got a choker around my neck. Then I’m constantly…
TP: You’re talking about my life. On a much different scale…
MS: You’ve got all these things that feel like these guillotines coming down. If I once say yes to that, that is going to be a gut-wrenching thing for me. I would much rather finish some things and then have a blank canvas, and then go, “Ok, now.” Even if the timing was fine. I just can’t…
TP: Bach was in the same boat. He had to write one every week.
MS: But I don’t do that. Listen, I’m not prolific. And there’s a lot of people who take on a lot of commissions. These guys like Mike Abene doing all this stuff for Cologne, and Rich De Rosa…
TP: They churn the stuff out. I won’t name names, but I’d like to discuss this in a way that doesn’t…
MS: There’s a lot of people who are constantly churning out. I’m not a churner, and I’m very sensitive to pressure. Very sensitive. I say no to a lot of things, not because I want to say no. It’s just because I know the psychological place I need to be to live. And once you’ve had a diagnosis with breast cancer, you don’t… I believe a lot of it is about stress. So I don’t want low-level stress in my life continually. It’s not worth it to me. So sometimes I say no to things maybe I shouldn’t even say no to.
TP: well, economically…
MS: Commissions are never money. They turn into money if you later are selling the music or performing the music. That’s why I also like writing for my band, because then I turn it into tours or working as a guest clinician. It’s my music, and I can perform it and turn that… That’s the income. But the actual writing comes out to less than minimum wage by the time you sit there for endless hours for months on end.
TP: Books are like that.
MS: Yeah. It doesn’t make you any money. Gigs make me the money, but especially clinics. That’s how I pay for all this stuff.
TP: Do you have a lot of clinics… What’s the rest of your year…
MS: Not crazy busy, in a way, thankfully, because I’m making the record. So I don’t have a lot of clinics. They’re starting to come for next… I have a feeling 2015-16 is going to be very busy. But I’m trying to keep things kind of clear this fall to follow the post-production—editing, mixing, designing, Artist Share. That’s a lot of work.
TP: Perhaps we can end this by describing what the record will be like that you’re recording in August. It’s the first one since 2007, Sky Blue?
MS: It came out on ‘07.
TP: So we’re talking about 8 years.
MS: Yeah, it’s a long time. The longest I’ve ever gone without doing a band. Concert In the Garden came out in ‘04. I’ve made records every three years, pretty much. I guess you could say Winter Morning Walks came out last year…
TP: From 2008 and 2011.
MS: That’s a long time. So this is music I’ve been writing over the past few years, again, trying to feature as many guys in the band as I can. The way I see my records is that I don’t so much plan a record as the record represents a period of my writing. It’s sort of a documentation of a period. But I think there’s usually a connection in the music by the nature of a period…its style or whatever. I think it’s a continuation of… I think beauty. There’s a lot of what I would just call beauty on the record. Another bird piece. This one the Birds of Paradise, “Arbiters of Evolution.” If there’s anything markedly different, I don’t quite know yet what it is. I think it has some unique solo sections on it that highlight people in pretty creative ways. So we’ll see.
And the band is in a really good place. They’re just playing well. This is the first time I’ve done a record where we’ve played most of the music for quite a long time, so I feel we know how to play this music—most of it. Some stuff is a little still-we’re-working on it, and this new piece I have to tweak. But a lot of the music we’ve played for a while, so I think it’s going to be… A lot of times I make a record, and then I hear it years later, and I’m like, “Oh my God, we don’t play like that any more.” This hopefully won’t be that.
TP: Do you have any speculation on the nature of your impact on other people. You’ve attained a lot of prominence, and you’ve crossed over past the jazz world. They write about you in the Economist, the Times Magazine, and so on.
MS: Here and there I hear something from a student that just sounds so much painfully like mine that it’s embarrassing, and I just want to say, “don’t do that to yourself.” But generally, I think that maybe… I don’t know, but I have a lot of feeling that a lot of people started big bands because they saw in mine how expressive the medium can be. That it was more than a lot of fun with a bunch of guys getting together, that they saw it could be really a great compositional outlet, and it doesn’t meant blasting big band music all the time, but that there is a lot of different space and colors and levels of density that you can get out of the instrumentation. There’s a lot of people writing large ensemble stuff now. I don’t think it’s just me that made an impact. But I know I have made some, because some people tell me… D’Arcy tells me Evanescence was a big influence on him wanting to do stuff, and certainly D’Arcy has been an influence on other people. So I think there was that time when Evanescence came out, that more and more people saw, “Wow, maybe I can find a way to be creative in a large ensemble, too, and it looks like fun.” And it is fun. It’s a pain in the ass, too.
TP: You probably won’t recall, but when I heard you at the Jazz Standard over Thanksgiving week they put me at your table, the conductor’s table. Richard Thomas…
MS: Richard Thomas was right next to me. That was a good night.
TP: I must say, I heard the music very differently, because I’d never been right in front. I think it made a lasting impression.
MS: Yeah, it’s powerful when you’re right in the middle of the front. I always wish people could sit right where I’m sitting. When it’s on, it’s really on.
[END OF CONVERSATION]
Maria Schneider (NYDN, Final):
“When I was a child, I dreamed of winning a Grammy,” Maria Schneider says. “I’d even say my speech at home when nobody was looking.”
The 44-year-old composer realized her fantasy last month, winning Best Large Ensemble Album for “Concert in the Garden.” She and her 17-piece orchestra will celebrate with a four-night run at the Jazz Standard, beginning Thursday.
Schneider won the honor despite bypassing record labels and conventional distribution channels. She spent $87,000 of her own money to make the record, and released it last July on ArtistShare, an Internet-based music delivery service..She quickly recouped her investment by selling disks and various downloadable add-ons exclusively through her website. As of now, she’s over $30,000 in the black.
Conservatory-trained and bandstand-tested, Schneider is a master of orchestration and flow. On “Concert In The Garden,” she treats her ensemble, comprised of New York A-listers, more like a chamber group than a conventional jazz big band. Her pieces are lyrical, intricately woven, and palpably sensuous, highlighted with ravishing instrumental colors and textures. There’s improvisation, too: she supports her soloists with harmonic language that embeds them into her sonic world while allowing their stylistic idiosyncracies to flourish.
“There’s an arc from beginning to end,” she says, in her light-filled Upper West Side apartment. “To get the timing, I tape the music, put on headphones, and start dancing. My body tells me if something is too brief or hanging on too long, if it needs to be more active or more pensive. To me, dance and music are together.”
The forms and rhythms of Spain and Brazil permeate the sound of “Concert in the Garden.”
“Flamenco and Brazilian music both come authentically out of their particular cultures, which attracts me,” Schneider says. “You feel the intensity of spirit coming through. I listen to them a lot, and it creeps into my music. What you eat, you eventually become.”
“Maria completely discarded everything she had been using, and went fearlessly into another world,” says Bob Brookmeyer, himself one of the most influential jazz composers of the last forty years. Schneider studied composition with him when she arrived in New York in 1985.
Soon after, she found work as an assistant to Gil Evans, the arranger responsible for the Miles Davis classic “Sketches of Spain.”
“She’s a chance-taker,” Brookmeyer continues. “Yet Maria has complete control over what she does, both as a composer and conducting her band. She has her own voice. Where that comes from, I have no idea.”
Some clues appear on the walls of Schneider’s flat. Above her chair is an old black-and-white photograph of her smiling mother cradling a piglet – “Happy Birthday” marked prominently on its shank – about to be presented to Schneider’s father.
On the opposite wall, above the piano at which Schneider composes, hang three small oil paintings by her sister in which massive towers, placed in an endless green expanse, morph into spaceships and aliens.
The setting is Windom, Minnesota, a prairie town of 4500, where Schneider’s father, an agricultural engineer, ran a flax plant. Her mother was an enthusiastic amateur pianist who, as Schneider puts it, “had Chopin down.”
“Behind our house was a field with huge flax stacks, an air strip, and towers for my father’s ham radio,” Schneider recalls. “He’d go to South America a lot, and brought back records. So I’ve always been attracted to all things Latin.
“Windom was full of magic,” she adds. “Sleeping in bed at night, ball lightning sometimes came through one window and out the other. Our parents told us this didn’t exist, but I kept seeing it. I still believe that the world is full of magic, much more than people acknowledge.”
Schneider draws similar nourishment from Manhattan.
“Of course, the city is international and multicultural, and so many great musicians live here,” she says. “But New York also feels closer to Windom than anywhere else I know. My neighborhood is my village. Everything I need is within walking distance. There’s nature, too. When I go into Central Park early in the morning and search for birds, I reach the same place I get to when I’m writing and very concentrated. You submerge into yourself, and connect to other things. That’s the magic place for making music — and living, ultimately, I think.”
Practicing piano as a little girl in Windom, Schneider imagined that the passing cars and trains had radios monitored by talent scouts from New York.
“If I played my Chopin, I always did my very best so that I would be discovered somehow,” she says. “I had ambitions, but when I practiced my Grammy acceptance speech, I had no idea what exactly it would be for. I just wanted to do music in some capacity. I firmly believe, and always did, that deep, heartfelt dreams come from deep, real wishes, and have tremendous power to make things happen in your life.”
Maria Schneider (Jan. 4, 2005, WKCR):
TP: Maria Schneider is performing Monday night at Birdland with her orchestra. This used not to be such a big deal. By that I mean that every Monday night for five or six years you could hear the Maria Schneider Orchestra at Visiones, on the corner of McDougal and Third Street. Now, performances by the Maria Schneider Orchestra are an event. The putative hook for the gig is that you’ve been nominated for a number of Grammies behind your first recording on your own label, which is being distributed over the Internet through Artist Share. You’re either the first or one of the first couple of releases done through Artists Share. It’s interesting on several levels, first the music, and what it denotes in your own musical evolution, which is a world unto itself; secondly, as a business model that many prominent musicians seem to be adopting. I think people will start to see the fruits of that attitude as 2005 progresses, as many are issuing albums under their own imprimatur.
Talk about the arc of the suite. Was it all recent work at the time you recorded it, in 2003-04, more or less?
MARIA: This piece [with Luciana] was the first written on the album. I guess that commission happened a couple of years ago. I decided to write three pieces that were sort of dance-influenced. So Choro Dançado… The choro is an early Brazilian music, almost what Ragtime is to Jazz. It’s a beautiful style that has a very specific harmonic kind of movement. My piece doesn’t really follow that, but it has the rhythm and contrapuntal quality that Choro has. Normally you don’t dance to choro, but I felt that this was a very dance-like piece.
Then I wrote Pas de Deux, which is the middle movement. I kept a picture of my favorite ballerina on my piano, Sylvie Guillem. She’s spectacular. She’s the most amazing ballerina. She’s French, but she’s danced with different companies in Europe, and on occasion she comes through New York, though it’s rare now. She’s very flexible, but it’s not only flexible. When she lifts a leg, it hesitates for a moment before it comes down, and everybody in the audience… She’s one of these performers that you can hear the whole audience breathe with her. She captivates the audiences that way. So I looked at this picture, and tried to treat two soloists… “Pas De Deux” is a dance for two, and I decided I wanted to have two soloists… The typical thing in jazz is if two people are trading, they’re almost competing, but I wanted the two soloists to play back and forth as if they’re dancing and catching one another. So each person, as they’re finishing their line, it weaves into the next person. I think that Charles Pillow and Ingrid Jenson did an amazing job of doing that.
TP: Have you done any writing for dance, for dance companies?
MARIA: Just once, and it was a lot of fun—for Pilobilus. It was fun how we came to that piece. It was part of a Doris Duke grant, and they had paired up five modern dance companies with five jazz composers, and so they paired me up with Pilobilus. They rehearse in Connecticut. I would go to the studio and play a few things on the piano, and then they would just start moving and improvising. They have three choreographers who are ex-dancers in that group, and they would just watch and tell them to develop certain moves. Then as I would watch them, I would play certain things. It was almost a playing back and forth between them and me. Then I recorded everything that I played, and we’d go home and develop that into compositions, and then go back another week later and… It was fun.
TP: Does the notion of dance and movement inflect the flow of your compositions and arrangements? Is it a constant preoccupation for you?
MARIA: It’s the way I write, actually. To me, one of the difficult things about composing and one of the things that I do in my music now is… Typical jazz is maybe a song form, and then everybody improvises, and there’s kind of a repetition of that form, which is kind of like theme-and-variations. But now my pieces really develop, so if there’s two soloists, they’re probably soloing over something differently, and whatever harmonic language is underneath them, even that keeps developing and moving. So there’s this arc from beginning to end. So to try to figure out the timing of that is… For me to get the timing, putting in my body really helps. So I actually put it into a tape recorder, put on headphones, and then I just start dancing. My body tells me if something is not going on long enough, if it’s hanging on too long, if it needs more activity or if it needs to be more pensive. That’s the technique I’ve found.
TP: Have you ever danced formally, taken lessons, techniques?
MARIA: When I was a kid. Tap and ballet, and I figure-skated. At the same time, I was taking music lessons. To me, dance and music are together. And my favorite kinds of music involve dance. Look at swing. Jazz. So much of it was dance music. Then Flamenco music, which I love, comes together with dance. Samba. All these different things.
TP: You’re going to have pretty much the full orchestra that’s been with you since ‘93, and you made your first recording at that time. So you’ve kept a consistent personnel over the years. How important is that to you, to have sounds, tonal personalities to write for consistently over the years?
MARIA: That’s been a wonderful thing. The band has developed… George Flynn, the bass trombone player in my band, made a comment the last time we played. He said the band has become like a flock of birds. If one person shifts a little bit, the soloists or somebody in the rhythm section, everybody, just BOOM, is like blackbirds, and they all shift to the left and to the right. That comes from playing a long time together. There have been a few changes in my mind, and that’s also been healthy because it brings in a little bit of new life and new voices for me to compose for. But there’s been a steady group that have threaded through the years.
TP: Have they influenced the content of the music? Their presence.
TP: What about them influences it? Their sounds, or predispositions, or thematic quirks, or your sense of who they are which gets transmuted somehow into music?
MARIA: I wonder if it’s something that’s more intuitive and that maybe I can’t put into words. I know that when I put my music out there, they bring it back, and over time they find certain ways to interpret the music that go beyond even what I had in my head. Somebody will find a certain way to play a line or something. Then when I hear that, all of a sudden I know, “Wow, I like that; I can use…” Then maybe that comes into my next piece. So over the years, they’ve really influenced me by what they bring back to my music, and what I hear is what I move on from.
TP: How would you describe the Maria Schneider sound circa 2005 versus when you first started presenting your orchestra 12 years ago? What’s similar? What’s different?
MARIA: I think my music has become more intricate. I’m sure it has. I’ve tried to incorporate the soloist into the writing. So I think that the soloist embeds into the writing in a deeper way now. It’s less like, here’s my writing; okay, now the person blows. But it’s more woven in. I think that there’s much more influence of rhythms and music from other countries. And orchestrationally, I treat the band much less like a big band now. In my older music, you’d hear more the brass and the saxophones, or the trumpets-trombones-saxes. Now I really look at it as a chamber group, that I have all these available colors. So in the reeds, I don’t just have five reeds, but I have many more possibilities, because one guy plays alto flute, bass flute, clarinet, and Charlie Pillow plays English horn and oboe. So I have all these different combinations, and then combinations of that oboe with someone from the trumpet section playing a flute or whatever. So mixing this, and NOT writing so sectionally. That’s probably the biggest change.
There have been a lot of things. If I listen to the music, the basic tonality of the music has changed.
I see the pieces all as little personalities, and I remember everything in my life that happened. When I hear a piece, I remember all the things, the smells, just the environment that went around writing that piece. They really represent each time of my life.
TP: What qualities are looking for in your musicians? By now, you have a sort of repertory company to write for, which is an ideal situation. Those musicians are very individualistic, but in some general way there’s a kind of synchronicity of their personalities that comes together to suit your vision. What are those qualities?
MARIA: One is a sound… There are two aspects to somebody’s sound. A sound that’s beautiful on its own, and a sound that knows how to blend. Sounds that can go together with other instruments and create something round and cohesive. Some people can have a sound, but it sticks out. These people know how to really blend together. That’s also probably come with time. Then, an approach to soloing where they have a voice of their own, but they also want to play for the music. That’s also kind of come over time. When I first started the band, I didn’t really foresee where this thing was going. I found these musicians, knew some of them, and we just kind of began this thing. Now, if I look back, it’s not so much that I can say, ‘Okay, I picked this person because they’re going to bring such-and-such to my music’—but over time they have. And by sticking together, this thing has come up, this sound as each record comes out, and it’s a mixture of what we all put into the music.
Concert In The Garden was released July 1st, and only available on my website. Maria Schneider Records at mariaschneider.com.
TP: [AFTER Pas de Deux] Earlier I described this release as notable on two levels, first the music, and what it denotes about Maria’s evolution and development and general qualities as a musician; and also for the business model. Jazz musicians for years have been putting out their own product. Duke Ellington did it for a while in the ‘40s on Mercer Records. Max Roach and Mingus tried to do it in the early ‘50s, made a go of it for a while. JCOA. But with Internet technology and the confluence of that with the crisis in the retail record business, it now seems like a very interesting time to set up ways (a) to distribute your own product, and (b) earn the fruits of your labor in a way that hasn’t always been possible for musicians before because of the various costs of production. What kindled your desire your undertake this? There are lots of details involved. It seems easy at the beginning: Yeah, I’m going to put this out, I’ll sell the records, I’ll make all the money, and recoup my costs. But then you wind up having to be a business person as well as a musician, possibly.
MARIA: I guess there are a few things. I was having problems making back my costs. These records are extremely expensive to make. This one cost $87,000. Now, I could have made it a little cheaper; I blew it in a few spots. But all my records were expensive. My first one, Evanescence, which I made in 1993, I spent $30,000…
TP: A question. Did you put up that money yourself and then sell it to Enja?
MARIA: That’s what happened with that record. I put it all up myself, made the record… Because I’d tried to get record companies to record me, and nobody would. So I thought, “Okay, I’m going to do this.” I wound up with a little DAT tape, $30,000 worth, and everybody said no. Everybody said they didn’t know how to market me. I got various responses. Finally, Enja said, “We’ll do it,” and they bought it for $10,000, which I felt…
TP: That was pretty good money for a jazz record in the ‘90s.
MARIA: Yeah. That seemed like a pretty good offer. But it’s the typical thing of a musician saying, “Oh, I’m only losing $20,000! Somebody wants to put out my music. Wow!” Get it out there. We’re so happy just to get our music out there, we’re willing to lose money to do it.
TP: I suppose that’s justifiable as an opening salvo, a sort of calling card. “Okay, here I am, this is my investment, now…”
TP: But then the second record, what happened?
MARIA: The record company paid for the second record. But along the way, also, a lot of record companies… One thing I realized, too, is that record companies are not making that much money. When people are buying a CD for $15 or something like that, the profit that the record company is making isn’t that. The record store is making their money, the distributor, then the record company. So in fairness to the record companies, they have to sell a lot of product to make their money back.
But most artist record companies are set up so that their royalty that they get… Say you negotiate for a 15% or 16% royalty, and the record company works towards recoupment. But they are not paying the artist their royalty as soon as they recoup all their expenses. They calculate their recoupment at the artist royalty rate. That means they take… If they’re selling a record to a distributor at $6 a CD, they take 15% of that, which would be 89 cents or something, and they calculate that amount. When that amount equals the $40,000 they spent on the record, then they start paying the artist. So that means the record company is set up to make a lot of money before the artist makes a penny.
Now, most artists are investing a lot in rehearsals, the time writing the music… So everybody is set up to make money except the artist. The distributors insure their profit. The record store can return the CDs if they don’t make money. The record company… It’s almost like a credit card company that’s getting their interest. They’re set up to make their profit. So the artist feels happy just to have people want to listen to their music.
This thing has got to change. Artists have to change their attitude about it. So Brian started seeing… Brian Camilio. Brian Camilio is the one who thought of this idea of ArtistShare, and technically, my record is on the ArtistShare label. But the thing is that I own my own masters and 85% of the profit is mine. So he came up with this idea to create this web design, this web software that allows me not only to sell my CDs, but to share the whole process. He said: “Really what we need to do is share much more than just the music. What is it that people who listen to your music are interested in?” I said, “Well, there’s a lot of musicians, actually. Even composers.” He said, “What if you shared your process, if you made your scores available for people to download, created lectures about how you compose your music.” So we came up with all these ideas, and he created this incredible software that allows people to get downloads, to stream information, to buy things by mail order. They can participate in the project on many different levels.
TP: So he has a proprietary software that’s customized towards the selling and distribution of recorded music and the ancillary incentives to purchase that music.
MARIA: Yes. For instance, as I was doing my project, I wrote news entries about what I was going through—the process. My process happens to have a lot of pain attached to it, and a loss of confidence and self-deprecation. My father said to me one day, “Geez, Maria, nobody’s going to want to buy your music if they hear that you really think that you’re not any good!” I said, “Well, Dad, I have to tell people the real deal…”
TP: Everybody’s confessing everything these days on national television; why not do it on a website?
MARIA: Yeah. So it’s a little bit of a tell-all. But I think it’s important to do that.
TP: Well, I’m sure among the people who are interested, it creates a feeling of intimacy. That’s not a bad marketing tool, come to think of it.
MARIA: That’s the idea, that the audience gets to know the artist and interact with the artist in a deeper way. I for one think it’s just an incredible idea. For me in particular, it’s been working very well. On all three of my records, I never, ever made a profit. That first one, the most I ever got in royalties was $7,000. I told you I lost $20,000. Plus, I gave up half my publishing. So all these records were kind of a losing proposition because of the publishing, and I invested a lot of money in my third record… For this one, I’ve already made my costs back! And it’s only been out for half-a-year.
TP: And it cost you $87,000. Pretty good.
MARIA: It’s my most expensive record, and I’ve already made the money back.
TP: Now, a lot of artists are moving toward similar conclusions. I’ll name a few off the top of my head with whom I’m familiar who are working with Artists Share. Jim Hall. Herbie Hancock…
MARIA: I think he’s doing something. I’m not really sure.
TP: A Brian Lynch project with Eddie Palmieri that’s being done this spring. Danilo Perez, who has a live trio recording at the Jazz Showcase. Dianna Witkowski.
MARIA: Charles Pillow has something coming up. There’s a wonderful group called Convergence that Greg Gisbert in my band plays in. Trey Anastasio from Phish is going to be doing something; I’m not sure exactly what. You can go to ArtistsShare.com and see…
TP: Dave Holland, Jack DeJohnette… I think a lot of people have heard what’s happened with your record, and they’ve been thinking about their options… It’s an idea whose idea seems to have come in 2005.
MARIA: The great thing about this, too, is I announced my project long before I recorded my project. I was shocked at the number of people who found it. I had no advertising at that time. I hadn’t hired a publicist yet. People just found it through the Internet and did their pre-order. I had something called Gold, Silver and Bronze participant levels, where they could have their name in the booklet as being a gold participant, and some man gave $1,000 right off the bat, somebody I’d never heard of. So I already had raised 30,000-some dollars before I had to pay for the album.
TP: Internet communities tend to organize themselves that way. Because of search engines, you can find information, or people go to sites that become clearing-houses, and it’s a very direct way to proceed.
MARIA: Someone goes to my website and can purchase it there. But all the people who have Artist Share sites are kind of hooked into this Artist Share network. My CD number on Artist Share is 001. I’m the first one.
TP: Sounds like you’ve always taken risks. Spending 30-grand on your first big band project isn’t something everyone would do. What gave you that confidence? You’re talking about how self-deprecating you are, but you put up $30,000. What’s with that?
MARIA: I have a strange kind of conflict within me. One is that, on one hand, I’ve always been this way—I’m self-deprecating; on the other hand, I must have some deep-seated trust. There’s something inside that says “throw it out there and do it.” I have some kind of deep risk-taker thing in me, and I always feel I’m going to come out landing. So far, I have. What’s really to be lost in something?
TP: Well, 30-grand.
MARIA: Yes, that’s true. [LAUGHS] And I did lose a fair amount. But that first record, as much as I say I lost money, it really got my name on the map, and Enja was incredible for me in that way. I felt proud to be on that label, too, because they’ve put out so much great music over the year.
TP: Part 3 is called Dança Illusoria. What’s the programmatic aspect here?
MARIA: In Portuguese it means “illusory dance.” It’s a foxtrot, but the harmony is almost Jobimish… It’s Brazilianish harmony. This was just my fantasy… I love dancing. In college I took ballroom dancing. This is like my fantasy foxtrot, I don’t know, maybe like Gene Kelly. That’s who I fantasized about as a child.
TP: May I read your liner note? “As I child, I would rush to the TV to watch anything with Gene Kelly or Fred Astaire, loving everything about those movies. Oh, to be one of those lucky women carried by that incredible music on the forearms and legs of Gene Kelly, and that continuous horizontal glide that appeared so easy, so divine, and so devastatingly romantic. I dreamed as I watched stone-faced, not to be caught even wishing for such an impossible thing.” Keep that in mind as you listen to Dança Illusoria.
How many rehearsals do you need to prepare the band after they’ve been off for three or four months?
MARIA: One. Unless I have a new and difficult piece. It’s kind of like putting on an old glove. It’s such a nice feeling, because everybody falls in. After maybe half a piece or one piece, it’s like, “Ooh, that’s how that feels again.”
TP: But back in the ‘90s, having a band every week, every performance could be like a workshop. Not that it wasn’t on a professional level, but you could experiment, you could tweak things, see how this or that sounded, allow for rough edges. It isn’t like that now, is it, because you’re primarily performing concerts and tours and one-offs.
MARIA: Yes. Although on occasion, I’ll sight-read something on a gig. I’ve found that the audience likes it. They like to feel a little bit part of the process. We used to do that a little bit at Visiones. We’d sight-read something, and there would be a train wreck; we’d stop, and we’d start again. We’d make that a small portion of the set sometimes. I’ve even done that when I wrote one particular piece, Hang Gliding. We were playing the Vienna Konzerthaus, which is like Carnegie Hall. I told them, “This piece is half-completed; I want to play the first half, and then we’re going to segue into another piece.” I just did it, and the audience seemed to love it.
TP: What’s your opus number? How many compositions?
MARIA: Compositions and arrangements? I really have no idea. I should count. I’m not particularly prolific. It takes me a while to complete some of these pieces. Every time after I’ve made an album, I always have this hiatus where I don’t hear anything, and then all of a sudden it comes back again, and I get going. It usually takes a commission to get a fire under my rear.
TP: But all your records, with one exception, which was a commission from a winery, are composed of original music. For the winery, you arranged tunes.
MARIA: I’ll be putting out that album through Artist share this year. I like it because it was recorded live, and it has a certain quality of what the band does when they play live.
TP: Within a normal set, are you particularly concerned about playing original music?
MARIA: I just mostly do. Usually I’ll play one standard a night. Not always. Sometimes two. I just try to put together a nice set. I don’t think my music is particularly difficult to get. It has a lot of details in it, but I don’t think it’s challenging in any huge way. Maybe somebody else would disagree. But I do have some standards that I like to play, and feature guys in my band on them. I have one that I arranged in college on My Ideal.
TP: Also a few years ago, I don’t recall whether you rearranged it or just conducted the chart, but you did Sketches of Spain with Wallace Roney on trumpet.
MARIA: That was just me conducting Gil Evans. I did nothing to it except get to stand in the middle of it and enjoy myself.
TP: That’s my awkward segue towards the influences question, because we’re about to hear a piece dedicated to one of your mentors, Bob Brookmeyer. Gil Evans was famously a mentor of yours as well? Do you have influences right now? At this point, would you say that you’re past influences in the way you think about writing? Is it coming through ways that you’ve distilled those people? Is it entirely Maria Schneider?
MARIA: I think I’m not past having influences come into me. I think I’m kind of secure in my world. But I think it’s impossible to listen to music, or absorb art, or take things in that impress you and inspire you, and not have it affect you. There’s a reaction to anything that you let into yourself in an emotional way. I particularly love listening to Brazilian music these days, and for years, Flamenco music. That’s been a huge influence. There’s so much left for me to learn and absorb from Brazilian music. There’s a lot of people there. Egberto Gismonti’s music has influenced me in a lot of ways. Paco De Lucia for sure. Classical music that I listen to? Absolutely. Pas De Deux has a lot of Ravel in it. It still comes in, absolutely. But I don’t go in and listen to something, and say, “Ooh, I’m going to try to write something kind of like that.” Like, maybe I would have way back when I was first starting. I think those days are gone.
TP: When did you come to New York?
TP: So there’s an eight-year gap between arriving in New York and putting out your first record. When did you first put together the big band?
TP: Was that when you went into Visiones?
MARIA: No. I went in there in 1993. I originally started the band with John Fedchock, and we’d play half his music and half my music. Then we both started our bands, and I got a different rhythm section and made a few changes, and probably him, too. There’s some similar personnel still there.
TP: In ‘85, were you coming directly out of school, or did you make a pit-stop?
MARIA: No, I came right down from Eastman with a friend of mine, a wonderful singer named Kate Egan, who lives in Alaska now—a classical singer. She and I came down and decided we were going to be roommates. I worked as a musical copyist for a man named Frank Zubac(?), and at a xerox machine I met a composer, Tom Pierson, who knew Gil Evans, he told Gil about me, and I started working for Gil… I did a lot of different things for Gil. As a copyist. Reorchestrating some of his music for big band, because his music was kind of a different instrumentation. Then he started having me help him on projects. It slowly developed. I did a lot of transcribing for him.
TP: I know one of the ways he himself learned about orchestration was going to the Public Library and copying the scores. Was that one of the ways…
MARIA: That I learned to orchestrate? I never did that. But I went to school and took orchestration classes. Gil was big into studying at the library. Once I told Anita that I’d fallen so in love with flamenco music, and she said, “Oh, you and Gil. He used to go to the library all the time, and he was so obsessed with flamenco music.” I should have figured it because he did Sketches of Spain, but I didn’t realize it. He and I had never talked about that, that he was so enamored of that music. But he studied when he wanted to learn something. Always curious.
TP: Are you systematic like that? Do you get into projects that you just have to absorb, or is it a different process?
MARIA: No. I wish I was a little more systematic. I’m kind of where I hear something, and… I was never studious about transcribing or anything. I’d be just, “Oh, I hear that; I like that; maybe it’s sort of like this.” It’s just my way. I’m not so meticulous and organized as that.
TP: The next piece is a gift from you to Bob Brookmeyer? [Anthem]
MARIA: That’s right. These people, who all played in his band and were friends of his, decided to make a record called Madly Loving You I think for Bob’s 70th birthday, and they invited friends of Bob to write pieces that featured Bob. So I was so intimidated to write a gift for Bob that would feature him. I went into such a panic. This thing starts out with kind of an F-triad. I even called him one day, and I was half-tearful. I said, “Bob, would you just play an F-triad so I can hear it!” I couldn’t believe that I was so blocked. He played it, and he said, “Maria, don’t worry about it; I can decorate any melody and make it sound nice.” It’s true! When you hear this melody and the way he creates decorations, and also how compositional he is in his improvisation… I created this section that leaves all sorts of room where he has to answer the orchestra. He’s phenomenal. I knew I could put that kind of trust in him that he would come through.
TP: [My Ideal] Maria wrote that arrangement of My Ideal in 1983. That version was recorded live at the Jazz Standard in [tk], and issued on a CD entitled Days of Wine and Roses.
MARIA: It came with two bottles of wine. In most states, music and wine is illegal to sell.
TP: And you may be releasing this on Artist Share as well. …recognition for her new CDs, Concert In The Garden, by the Grammy nominating committee for Best Large Jazz Ensemble Album; Donny McCaslin is nominated for best solo on Buleria. I had two compositions nominated. One is the Buleria, Solea Y Rumba, and then the University of Miami recorded Three Romances and submitted that as a composition, so I got nominated twice in that category…
You say you’re in a hiatus now. But do you have any projects on tap? Any commissions?
MARIA: There are some commissions coming up. One isn’t in its final contract yet, but for the Disney Hall out in L.A. I think they’ll commission me to write something for my own orchestra. I’ve been talking a bit with a symphony. I don’t want to say which one yet, but there’s a symphony in the States that’s interested in commissioning me to write something. So maybe it’s time I step into that realm a bit. There’s a nice idea I have for an Artist Share project which will be a collaboration, but I can’t say that one either. So people who come to the site…there will be a big announcement when it happens.
TP: Do you count your hits?
MARIA: Not really. I try not to count my sales too much. I try not to peep too much, although it’s kind of nice to look, because there’s actually a significant profit now per CD. That’s the thing that’s really exciting, that when people buy CDs now, a significant amount of that money really is going back to me doing new projects. So it all perpetuates the possibility of me doing new recordings. Which never happened before. I had to run around doing clinics and a thousand other things to make enough money to put out a record. But maybe I can be in the business of actually making recordings primarily, and having it be a viable business.
Maria Schneider (March 7, 2005):
MARIA: …the way to play my music. Imagine if we had that for Mahler…
RICK: This is the tempo I want for this thing, or whatever.
TP: So tenor player Rick Margitza is visiting from Paris, and Maria later this afternoon is going to interview him on her website on how to properly phrase her music. You‘re saying that you want to sell scores, parts…
MARIA: I’m trying to broaden the whole experience of people ordering my music. Typically, if they buy the music, they can listen to the record and figure it out for themselves. But here they can listen to Rick talk about the way he approached soloing on certain changes. So students can get that extra advice. I can talk about how I actually rehearse things, or Rick can talk about how he phrases lines. Because when Rick plays my music, certain lines he plays, even when he’s not improvising, he has a very beautiful way of interpreting my writing that makes the music sound the way it sounds. My band has this kind of buoyancy… Tim Ries came over, and we were going over flute parts, and he was playing some things, and then he told me right where he starts putting vibrato on a note to make the note blossom a little bit. Then I realized that’s why the band sounds so great.
TP: Rick Margitza, who would have taken the solo for which Donny McCaslin was nominated for a Grammy… You were saying, Maria, is that you interface with the musicians, that over the years there’s a feedback loop where they take your information and give it back to you. They make the music live, in a certain sense.
MARIA: They bring their own thing to the music, which in turn I think affects the way I write, and then maybe that has some influence on the way they play, and then they go filter it through themselves, so it kind of comes back and forth.
TP: Rick I suppose you’ve been involved in Maria’s music since she first organized the band? What are the qualities of the writing aside from the craft and poetry and notion of the dance…what qualities make it appealing to you? Why is she able to hold this band together for so long? Apart from working every week for a few years. There were other bands in the early ‘90s. What was so special about Maria’s?
RICK: I think the fact that her music is so organic is the main thing for me that made me continue to want to keep playing in the band and playing the music. It has inherent qualities that give it the ability to be different every time you play it. As opposed to maybe more stock big band kind of stuff where you have to play it in a certain way, in a certain style, her music lends itself to different types of interpretation and openness.
MARIA: My music requires that the soloists really have to participate in that piece. It’s not enough to just blow on the piece, but they have to carry the piece from one point to another. So it requires something of them to really connect to the music, rather than just kind of blowing on a tune.
RICK: I’m thinking about this interview we’re going to do later, and one thing I was going to say is that every solo in your music, you kind of have to play it in the context of the piece. You can’t just bring the stuff that you play over A-minor in any other jazz tune, and play it over A-minor in Maria’s music. You have to approach the A-minor differently, depending on the context of the piece, and the atmosphere and the environment.
TP: Maria, in writing the tunes, are you specifically thinking of those tonal personalities?
MARIA: A little bit. It’s weird, because I don’t want to typecast, and sometimes we switch solos on different nights. I always gave Rick the torturous ones! But generally, I have a certain feeling about their sound and what kinds of things they can come out in. But then sometimes we’ll switch solos around just for fun, and then somebody else will bring something, and I’ll think, “Wow, I didn’t think they had that in them, or that there’s other sides to people. So I have to be careful about tyepcasting.
TP: Rick, how have you noticed the evolution of Maria’s music over the past decade or so? Does it sound palpably different to you now than what she was doing ten years ago?
RICK: It’s becoming more of who she is. I think that’s the goal of most of us as artists, is that the music grows as we grow as humans. Maybe some of the earlier stuff sounded a bit more like things you heard in the past. Now I hear it, and I know immediately it’s her music. I don’t think I can give you any technical examples, but it’s just opening up more. There’s more points of reference and it seems more personal.
TP: Does it seem more beyond influence?
MARIA: What goes along with that is I don’t really care if my music sounds like big band music, or… When I wrote before, sometimes I’d wonder, “Can I do that?” Now I never ask, “Can I do that?” Who says “can I or can’t I?” I just write.
TP: When you came out with your first records, because only people around New York who knew about the people you were involved had a sense that you were doing anything, and here you show up with this fully formed personality. When did you first meet?
RICK: When I got to New York in ‘88-‘89.
TP: How much repertoire did you have at the time?
MARIA: Not that huge. I moved to New York in ‘85. I have a couple of pieces in my book that I had written in a different form before that. But that’s when I started studying with Bob Brookmeyer and working with Gil Evans, and started thinking about maybe starting a band. So I had a few pieces, but not a lot.
TP: Did forming the band force you to start producing a lot of stuff?
MARIA: More, yes. And getting commission. When we got the Visiones gig, and people started coming in and hearing the band, they started commissioning me, and then you have to produce. It’s a bad and a good thing.
RICK: One thing Maria said about my music that I felt about hers before she said it about mine is, I hear and feel more joy in it.
MARIA: Yes, that’s true. Egberto said that about my music, too.
RICK: There’s more details, more… It’s not that it was never fun to listen to, but it’s even more fun to listen to.
TP: What’s Maria like as a bandleader?
RICK: It’s great that she lets us bring our own personalities to the music. We’re talking about how I phrase her things. I play certain phrases that I like to use to ornament, things that are not written in the music, and she allows us to try things as opposed to saying, “No, this is the way I want it.” That makes it a joy to be around, because it doesn’t feel like you’re just an employee. You feel like you’re part of the whole process.
TP: Was anything going on in New York like Maria’s music in 1992-93?
RICK: No. I’m embarrassed to say I’ve never heard the Mingus band live. A lot of people said that that was kind of different every week. But I think that hardly had any structure, which is…
TP: You’ve worked in the Vanguard Orchestra, though.
RICK: Yes, a couple of times.
TP: Now, there’s an orchestra with an enormous book, and it seems to me that they take liberties with the charts, solo change…
RICK: Solos change a little bit, but that music kind of has an inherent structure, that you have to follow certain guidelines. Of course, I love that music, but it’s not as open as Maria’s. It wasn’t as different from week to week.
TP: So at the Jazz Standard, when you play Buleria, each night Buleria may mutate into some slightly different…
MARIA: Some pieces more than others. It depends on the pieces. Some of the older pieces, like Green Peace, which Rick played on, the rhythm section takes that so far left now. It’s amazing, what’s happening on that thing! So it depends on the piece. Some of my pieces are pretty tightly composed, but then the rhythm section, they can do several things to make it feel different. It depends what piece it is.
TP: Is the qualitative difference that you’re going to change sections or assign different solos, or is it that within your part to interpret, it can be open…
RICK: I should be more specific. As Maria said, certain pieces lend themselves to more openness. But I think it’s more in terms of what happens within the solo section. The written stuff, obviously, because it’s more structured, is going to sound not the same every night… But I was talking more about the solo sections.
TP: Now, you’ve been nominated for Grammys before, so this isn’t your first. Obviously, within the context of the jazz world and serious music world, you’ve had recognition. But how has getting the Grammy affected things? On the real side, does it really mean something to you?
MARIA: I think it means something more than to me personally inside my own head and my view to myself. It means something to the general world, the general audience. For instance, I’ve heard from so many people from my home town, just a ton of people. For a lot of the people, the ultimate music award is the Grammy. Maybe even some people aren’t really sure what a Pulitzer is, but they know the Grammys. So in terms of reaching a wide audience, to be able to say…
TP: You’re playing in Machu Pichu?
MARIA: Well, no, I’m playing in Lima. But I’m working with a band of all different musicians, and then Peruvian musicians.
So I think it means something to kind of the wider world, that you can always say, “Hey, I won a Grammy” or that you’re introduced that way. It means something. So it’s a nice thing.
Plus, even for me, when I was a child, I used to dream of winning a Grammy. When the Grammys were on, afterwards I’d say my speech at home when nobody was looking!
TP: Was that the speech you gave?
MARIA: No. That one was probably, “I want to thank my mother, my father and…”
TP: Well, they don’t give much time for jazz on national television.
MARIA: No. I mainly thanked ArtistShare and the band and things like that.
TP: What’s your home town?
MARIA: Windom, Minnesota. Three hours from Minneapolis, in the southwest corner. Prairie.
TP: So it’s not the Bob Dylan part.
MARIA: No. It’s the southwest corner, close to South Dakota and Iowa. Big, open… 3,666 was the population.
TP: When you were a kid?
TP: Was there lots of jazz there?
MARIA: [LAUGHS] There was no jazz there. There wasn’t even a record store. The records were sold in the clothing store. In recent years, they’ve sold my CDs… Well, now my CDs aren’t sold in stores. But before that, they sold them in the flower shop.
TP: Has there been a spike in your CD sales since the Grammy?
MARIA: Yeah, definitely.
TP: In January, when we spoke, you were already a nice taste in the black. How many have you sold so far?
MARIA: I’ll have to look. I don’t know how many I’ve sold.
TP: But it cost you $87,000 to make, and you were $10,000 or $15,000 in the black.
MARIA: Yes. Now I think $120,000 overall is about what I’ve brought in. That’s pretty amazing. But the thing about ArtistShare is it isn’t only CD sales. Maybe CD sales are $70,000-something of that. But it’s this thing of the composer participants, having all these different levels in which people participate in other ways, is bringing in income, too.
TP: So for instance, what you’ll do with Rick will be one of those value-addeds.
TP: You pay Rick for his services, you sell it for X amount, and it…
MARIA: These interviews go along with the music, documenting something beyond. The latest thing I’m doing that I’ll try to put up in the next few days is that when I recorded my music, I left solos off of… I had people solo in the booth. [HEARS WATER DRIPPING, FIXES IT] When I recorded the music, I also made versions with no solos. So what I’m going to sell is that people can download an MP-3 of the music without the solos, download the printed music in all keys for all instruments, and then listen to the interviews I do with the guys about how they approach those solos. It’s called The Maria Schneider Orchestra Featuring (?).
TP: Is Bob Brookmeyer doing anything like this these days?
MARIA: Bob is going to start an ArtistShare.
TP: You’re playing in Peru. One thing you discussed on the radio is that you’re bringing more of the flavors of the world into your music, that it’s become a much more multicultural organism. That’s certainly how Concert In The Garden is.
MARIA: Somebody asked me recently, “How do you go about bringing in world influences?” The thing is, some people are into World Music and studying music of different cultures, and for me it’s not really quite like that. I’m not really so studious. The thing is, I’m attracted to music that is very authentic and coming out of culture. It’s something I’ve noticed. Flamenco music. Flamenco music isn’t just music; it’s a culture. Brazilian music isn’t just music; it’s a culture. And you can feel that intensity of spirit coming through the music. That’s what attracts me to that. I’d say jazz was more a culture at one time. The world of Jazz has changed somewhat. So I find myself listening a lot to that music. I’m just attracted to it. And if you’re listening to something a lot, it comes into your music in different ways. It just creeps in. It’s like what you eat, you eventually become.
TP: Do you think you’d be able to do this kind of music if you didn’t live in New York? The cosmopolitanism of it, the international flavors? Or is that kind of immaterial?
MARIA: I can’t say for sure, because I just do live here. But there’s a lot of things I love about New York. One thing is all these musicians that live here, the great musicians, the fact that the city is very international and multicultural, the fact that it feels more like a small town to me than any other city I’ve ever lived in, except for Windom. It feels closer to what Windom is about than anything else I know.
TP: New York does?
MARIA: Yes. I live in Manhattan, and when I live my apartment, everything that I need is in a very close area. My little area feels very much like a community. I know the different people. I recognize faces on the street. I know people in the shops, and they know me. This area of Manhattan is my village. I’ve lived in other cities where you have to travel by car, and you go to this mall for that, and whatever. That to me feels like a city. This to me feels like it’s a village. Wherever you live, you make your own little sphere, your own little bubble that’s your world.
TP: I’ve never heard anyone say that Manhattan felt like a village. But I know exactly what you mean.
MARIA: It’s the closest thing to a small town. You can walk everywhere. And it’s social. A small town is social. I talked to a friend of mine, Oscar Castro-Neves. He lives in L.A. He’s originally from Rio. He said, “Maria, if you want to meet somebody, you’ve got to make an appointment three weeks in advance.” Here it’s like, “Hey, you want to have dinner?” Okay. Boom. We meet. That’s something you can do in a small town.
TP: Is that good for the music?
MARIA: Yes, definitely. “Hey, Larry, can you come over for an interview?” Or George Flynn, for instances, who lives uptown a little ways. “I want to bring my tuba down and play some music for you, and let you hear this new tuba I have, it sounds so great.” So boom, we can get together like that, and so some music. Or “Can you come over with your horn? I want to hear if you can articulate something that I’m writing.” I do that with people all the time.
TP: So you really are drawing on the musicians in very palpable ways. [LOCAL INGREDIENTS, RESTAURANTS THAT USE FARMERS MARKETS]
TP: On the radio you said that every piece brings forth a life association. You can remember the circumstances in a very sensual way—the smell, what was around you, the way things tasted. Listening closely to your music, you can hear those little flavors. This morning I was thinking, “Wow!” There’s also an underlying notion of dance, and you spoke of how you get inside your own body to ensure that the pieces are the right proportion.
MARIA: The timing. Did I talk to you about the sculpture thing? Recently I figured out why… First of all, music has always felt sculptural to me. When I sit, I can envision shapes and things going through things, translucencies, all sorts of things about sculpture. Yet I need to dance to figure out the timing. Then I figured out why I’m so attracted to dance. I thought, well, dance is sculpture in the context of time.
TP: Do you look at a lot of art? Do you have a lot of artist friends?
MARIA: I do. My sister is an artist. These three… That she made of me years ago. Actually, she was 13 when she made this portrait of me.
TP: She’s turning water towers into spaceships and aliens… [WATER TOWER IN A FIELD…] Sort of surreal.
MARIA: They’re oils. It’s very surreal. The images you see in her paintings are all things I recognize. First of all, my father flew a small plane for his work. He had to fly a plane. We kept it behind our house for years, but then Windom eventually built a little airport. That’s corn country, corn and beans, so it’s just fields, and then in the middle out there it’s just this air strip, and it’s very kind of bleak like that. Then we also had water towers next to our house… Well, Windom had a big water tower, but we had big radio towers that my father built because he did ham radio and stuff. We just had these huge towers. So in a lot of Kate’s things, she’ll do that little tower motif.
TP: People from Minnesota are wild. I’ve been reading Bob Dylan’s autobiography, and he writes a lot about the Mesabi Range and Minneapolis in the late ‘50s. I have other friends there. Seems like there’s something there that inclines people to independent thinking.
MARIA: Maybe. I think there’s something that makes you very creative when you grow up in a small town, too, because you make your own fun. You have to, in a way. Everything isn’t pre-packaged, and you go here and have this package deal. Okay, you’ve got snow; what can we do with this? There’s this family we know, and they had these barn parties in the summer. They’d invent these things like carp-wrestling, where we’d all smear ourselves with Crisco and go in this mud-hole and try to catch carp! It’s fun.
TP: That’s a tune.
MARIA: Could be.
TP: How programmatic is your music? What’s the balance between abstract thought, purely musical ideas, and programmatic narrative?
MARIA: The programmatic aspect I’ve started to understand better lately, too. I don’t set out to say, “Okay, I’m going to write a piece about carp wrestling or hang gliding or whatever.” But what happens is, when I sit down to write, I’m looking for an idea that grabs me. What happens is all of a sudden I’ll find this little sound, or something that feels like it has potential to be its own entity, its own personality. It’s like a little embryonic form of something. What usually happens when I fool around with that, is a lot of times that idea will attach itself to some sort of memory. It will just start to smell like something that I know in my life. Not literally smell, but suddenly it will bring me back to something. Then when I delve into that sound attached to that memory, it ends up being not necessarily programmatic, but maybe descriptive or something of that time. Then a lot of times I’ll name it for that, but I didn’t set out to write a piece about it. I’m not that technical. Like, if somebody comes to me, “We want a trumpet concerto,” it’s so hard for me. I have to find a sound, and then see what that wants to be, and then follow it. It’s like following the music.
TP: It always starts with a sound.
MARIA: Right. It does. It’s following the music, rather than leading the music. I like to follow the music, let the music lead me to where it wants to go.
TP: Do you compose on the piano?
MARIA: Yeah, generally. A combination of with the piano, walking around, writing things down, going to the park, back and forth.
TP: Do you use Sibelius program…
TP: So it’s not like you lay down tracks for yourself on the computer. You do it the old-fashioned way.
TP: Would you ever use high-tech? Is there something about the process of making music the way you do, the physicality of it?
MARIA: This is my process. It feels so organic and kind of spiritually right for me. I just can’t see being where I need to be mentally in dealing with the computer. I so associate the computer with email, it doesn’t feel creative to me. Not to say it isn’t for somebody else, but I’ve never gotten to that point. A lot of people are so comfortable with it that it feels part of their creative process. It’s never become part of mine. Maybe some day, but it hasn’t been yet.
TP: Another aspect of being in New York is that the other arts obviously have a profound effect on what you do, and you can partake so easily.
MARIA: The weird thing about New York is that I don’t go and see half of what I should. When you’re here, it’s so easy not to see it somehow. It’s just crazy. New York also has nature, the park… I was just writing to Mom, I’m so excited for the migration that’s going to come soon, where the warblers come through. I watched birds when I was a child, and I started again last year.
TP: You met a friend, an older man, whom you go watch birds with.
MARIA: John Caravelli. He used to play french horn in the New York Phil.
TP: Does birdsong help you write, or is that…
MARIA: Not so literally.
TP: Not like Eric Dolphy going out on Malibu…
MARIA: Or Messaien. No. But I’ve discovered that when I go into the park early in the morning and start searching for birds, I go into this place in myself that is very difficult to go into, that is completely different from being here and dealing with the computer and the phone and everything. It’s the same place that I get into when I’m really writing and very concentrated. You kind of submerge into yourself. And in that place in which you are really deeply into yourself, ultimately you’re very connected to other things, so you feel very connected to Nature and birds. I think that’s what happens, too, when you sit down and compose or maybe improvise; when you go really deeply into yourself, ultimately you’re in a place where you can connect to others. So that’s the magic place for making music—and living, ultimately, I think.
TP: Were you able to articulate this before you started doing the ArtistShare material? Has the process of communicating with your audience helped you articulate aspects of your artistic process?
MARIA: Probably a little bit. I’ve always liked teaching and communicating. But probably the ArtistShare thing has forced me to figure a few things out, and I started to understand more things.
TP: You’re going to be four nights at the Jazz Standard.
MARIA: We did Jazz Standard last fall. They’ve been having us about every six months.
TP: Performing your repertoire in a club, ten pieces a night, five a set, is it different from a concert?
MARIA: It is. It’s more relaxed, which is nice. They both have their special things. A concert is special, too. But a jazz club you feel very close with your audience, and I think the band feels looser to try things. Because you feel you have another chance the next night, people feel they can take risks. It feels very alive and joyous and nice. I like working in a club; I really do.
TP: If you could name three classical composers in the European tradition who have influenced the way you think, who would they be?
MARIA: Bach is probably number one. Ravel.
TP: With Bach it would be the counterpoint and the dialogue of musical voices.
MARIA: And the magic of the math and the beauty, the logic being so incredibly profound, translating into beauty. To me, it’s the closest thing I know to Nature. Looking into a leaf and seeing fibinacci or something, but then you stand back and it’s this beautiful thing. Or a pine cone. To me, Bach is the closest thing to the magic of Nature and math and geometry. Ravel because his music has influenced me a lot—the colors. The third is tough, because there are so many people after that.
TP: Two more.
MARIA: Hindemith. One of my favorite pieces is The Four Temperaments, and it’s also one of my favorite dances. Balanchine. The next one would be because I heard it so much as a child and I know it’s part of my sound, is Chopin.
TP: Did you play Chopin as a child?
MARIA: I did. But my mother did a lot. So I heard Chopin around the house. It was always this sort of melancholic… Whenever my Mom sat down to play piano, she was playing Chopin, and it had a big influence.
TP: Is she a good pianist?
MARIA: Not great. But she had Chopin down. She had certain repertoire that she could just sit down and play.
TP: So music came to you through your mother.
MARIA: My mother, yes. And she liked standard tunes, too. And my piano teacher was just this phenom.
TP: But when you hear your mother, it soaks into you? Why don’t you play your music?
MARIA: On records? Because I suck! I’m not a good player. In Windom, everybody thought I was amazing. By Windom standards. But when I got to college, I knew I wasn’t, because my piano teacher had… She was this great stride pianist, great classical pianist. She had this relaxed ease in her hands, and at the same time this tremendous power, this evenness in her scales. I couldn’t get that together. I was deathly scared of performing, because I felt so inadequate. When I first auditioned at the University of Minnesota, I was just an absolute wreck. I love conducting and helping with the interpretation of music. I had no inhibitions, when I was child, to dance. I had no inhibitions when I ice skated. When I fell, I didn’t much care.
TP: No inhibitions about smearing yourself with Crisco.
MARIA: No inhibitions about that. But terrible inhibitions about playing and wanting the sound to be perfect somehow. So it works for me for the creative part of my process to be private, which it is when you compose, and then to put it out there how you want, and leave it up for the interpretation and for the band to mess up! If they want to mess up, that’s their problem.
TP: Ellington probably didn’t play such even scales either all the time, but he used piano to prod the band…
MARIA: But he had a beautiful way of… Gil, too. Gil was no technical master. But Gil had a certain quirkiness and personality to his playing that was so special. I don’t particularly think I have anything special to offer. So if I can have somebody like Frank Kimbrough play my music, why would I even think of touching a piano?
TP: Can your music be pared down? Has anyone done a piano trio record of Maria Schneider’s music…
MARIA: They probably could. A few of my guys have done things. Like, Rich Perry recorded My Lament, and somebody recorded Last Season
TP: Is it too organic to be broken down?
MARIA: The orchestration and so many details. You could do it. I’m not sure if there’d be that much to be gained by it, because I think such a huge part of it is the orchestration.
TP: Maria is sitting under a photograph of her mother, who appears to be maybe 30, holding a pig sort of like a baby, with “happy birthday” markings on the pig. You also had a goose in a diaper.
MARIA: That was a birthday gift to my father. My mother repaired wings of birds, so this little gosling was given to my parents. I think its mother had been hurt, and this bird’s wing was hurt. My parents brought her up, and she became Lucy the Goose. She never could fly, but she had a diaper and lived in the house. Recently I was home, and I saw there was a picture of a dog and a squirrel in the house, and I said, “Mom, you had a squirrel?” “Oh yeah.” I said, “Where did it go to the bathroom?” “Oh, all over.” We had crows. We had two crows, and I don’t know… The crows were free, and I don’t know how they became take, but the crows started to steal clips off the laundry lines and started to steal jewelry at the beach, at the lake, so the police made us lock up the crows. They made us put them away. So my father made this huge cage for the crows. But that’s Windom. They put crows behind bars.
TP: Were there picket fences and stuff?
MARIA: Not picket fences. But it was very surreal. I have to say there was something very bizarre about Windom. I think Windom, in a way, was full of kind of that Magical Realism. In our house, we had recurring ball lightning that would go through our bedroom, so sleeping in bed at night, this ball of fire sometimes would come through one window and go out the other window. Our parents were telling us this didn’t exist, but I kept seeing it.
TP: “Oh, she has a vivid imagination.”
MARIA: Exactly. That’s it. “Oh, it must have been a reflection on the window” or whatever. It wasn’t until I think I was 13 that I finally saw an article in Life magazine on ball lightning, and it was like, “See?!” So it instilled this thing in me that I still carry, which is that the world is full of magic and there is much more than people will tell us there actually is. I still believe that, because I experienced it as a child. So Windom had a lot of real life, but then a lot of imagination, too.
TP: Maria said that when she was a little girl practicing piano, she imagined that the trains and cars passing by (there was a railroad track nearby) had radios, and a talent scout from New York.
MARIA: There was a highway that went through Windom and across from our house was just a field. Nothing. It really is very bleak. But I would fantasize when cars would go by that there were people passing through just looking for talent from mid-America to bring to the big city. If I played my Chopin or whatever it was I was playing, I was always playing my very best so that I would be discovered somehow.
TP: So you had ambitions.
MARIA: I had ambitions. I didn’t know exactly to do what. Even when I would practice my Grammy acceptance speech, I had no idea whether that would be for a song, for a performance, for jazz, classical, rock. I had no idea. But I just wanted to do music in some capacity, and felt that I had the ability for it somehow, but I had no idea of really what.
TP: Some of what you became is making sense from these anecdotes of your childhood.
MARIA: I’m a firm believer that when you have these really deep, heartfelt dreams… I’m so intellectualized, but they’re just coming out of real deep wishes. Those things have tremendous power to make things really happen in your life. I’ve always had that.
TP: Do you still have it? Now that you’ve won a Grammy, and your name is known around the world, and you have this band, and 50 compositions…
MARIA: I guess it’s different. Those dreams come back to me if I do something like go out bird-watching. When I get out of this grind of practical life and go more into that place inside me, then those kind of unrealistic but very possible dreams come out.
TP: Do you do all your own business?
MARIA: A lot of it. I have an agent, and I have people who help me, but I do a lot of my work.
TP: How does your day break down? Now are you writing anything?
MARIA: I’m just starting something. [POINTS TO FRAGMENTS ON SCORE PAPER ON PIANO] A lot of stuff there is being thrown away.
TP: Don’t you have a symphony commission?
MARIA: Maybe in the fall. Not a symphony, but a symphonic orchestra may have me… The Minnesota Orchestra is talking about maybe a little something. But lately it’s a lot of business. I’m getting back to writing. I have a some commissions. Every time I do a record, after the record, I’m fallow like… [END OF SIDE]
TP: You said you’re fallow like a field is fallow. What kind of crops did your parents grow?
MARIA: My father was in the flax business. He designed machinery for processing flax.
TP: Agricultural machinery. So he was an engineer.
MARIA: He was an engineer, and he ran the flax plant there. Behind our house was a big field with these huge flax stacks, and he’d have to go to Canada and Mexico, and he’d go to South America. That’s part of the South American thing, too. When I was a child, my father would go to South America a lot. My parents had some records of music from South America. Just this fantasy of South America. I’ve always been attracted to all things Latin.
TP: It’s a very romantic culture.
MARIA: Yeah. This isn’t for the Daily News, but I did have one experience as a kid with… There was a man from Mexico named Angel Gardner who came to our house. He came to Windom; he was somehow involved in the flax business. He was a young guy in his twenties. The only restaurant in Windom at this time was a place in the country called the Driftwood Steak House, which wasn’t really elegant dining, but they had like the chicken basket, the red plastic basket. My sisters went there, but it was my parents and me. I was probably 12 or 13, maybe. I had the chicken basket. And I didn’t feel very attractive. I was a late bloomer, a redhead kid. I was sitting there, and Angel is next to me, and I’m eating my chicken, fried very greasy, and he looked at me and said, “Maria. Feed me chicken.” “What?” “Feed me chicken. I want chicken.” So I took a drumstick, and I’m like holding it up to his mouth, and he starts nibbling and tugging on it. All I could think was it felt like a bullhead pulling the line and the bobber down in fishing! The lips smacking. And my parents were just sitting… They were in shock! They didn’t say anything, they didn’t stop it, they were just kind of like… I’d have to say my first erotic experience was with a Latin man in Windom, Minnesota. I’ve been looking for Angel Gardner ever since.
TP: He’s probably in his late fifties now.
MARIA: That’s okay. I tend to be with men who are about twenty years older than me. I’m trying to get over that. It’s not working well…
TP: How did you first meet Maria?
BROOKMEYER: Ed (?) at Eastman called me and told me ….[BLIP]…..
TP: She needed a job and a place to stay, and she’d call you ….[BLIP]…. What did she do with you? What was the nature of her apprenticeship.
BROOKMEYER: She said, “I came to you an arranger and left a composer.”
TP: So her technique was pretty much fully formed out of the conservatory.
BROOKMEYER: Her instrumental technique.
TP: When did you first hear her work?
BROOKMEYER: When she came to me.
TP: What was it like? Do you recall?
BROOKMEYER: Very well skilled. Good arranger. She had good orchestration. Everything was in place. So she was ready to go.
TP: What were her influences at that time?
BROOKMEYER: I think me. She heard Make Me Smile with Mel Lewis. She liked that. I assume she’d heard Gil. What else, I don’t know. First we worked on arrangements. She wanted to write something for Woody Herman’s band. Her then-boyfriend was on the band. So we wrote two arrangements for Woody, and then one for Mel Lewis as a vocal, which we thought would be a good entry into the band. Then she wrote Green Piece for Mel’s band, and Mel didn’t like it. So eventually, she and John started their own band, which was very good right away, and then she started her own group months later.
TP: Did you hear her band right away?
BROOKMEYER: No. The first I heard it, she sent me a CD to do the liner notes.
TP: I know how much you mutually admire each other. But could you speak to what has made her music stand out in the ‘90s and in this period?
BROOKMEYER: We talked a lot about being a woman in this business. I thought it necessary because I wanted to get her ready to function in sometimes a hostile male world. It’s hostile to me, and I’m a man. So I wanted to get her ready for the real world. She has a sensibility that is feminine, yet she has very much control over what she does, both as a composer and as a conductor with her band. So she has a voice, and where that comes from, I have no idea. The music god says, “You’ve got a voice,” you’ve got it. That’s the music god. That’s why I’m not Bartok.
TP: When you say that her voice is feminine, what exactly do you mean by that?
BROOKMEYER: I think she has a gentleness, say, as opposed to Thad Jones, or some McNeely even, and some other people. Since I think women are better human beings than men, I think she has a very human touch with the orchestra and a very poetic sense of space and timing, and the way she handles the instruments and the chances she takes I think are wonderful.
TP: There’s an innate quality of dance—not necessarily swing—in all the work that I hear, that somebody could be dancing to this.
BROOKMEYER: I would think this. She played Concert in The Garden for me, she was worried about the mix, so went to her apartment and listened to it, and I was just stunned. I said, “As Gil went from Porgy and Bess to Sketches in Spain, which is a radical work for him, this is I think a great leap from her third CD, Allegresse, to this one.
TP: How so?
BROOKMEYER: She completely discarded everything that she had been using, and went into another world—fearlessly. I think it’s a magnificent achievement.