Maria Schneider & the Art of Reconciliation
How a composer-arranger and a great soprano melded jazz, classical and poetry
When first asked by soprano Dawn Upshaw to write some classical vocal music, composer, arranger and bandleader Maria Schneider was “terrified,” she says. The invitation stirred up Schneider’s painful memories of classical composition classes in college, an experience so disheartening that she reacted like a wartime refugee, fleeing across the border and resettling in the land of jazz composition. In her new homeland, she has regularly won critics’ polls as Best Jazz Composer, but here was Upshaw daring Schneider to revisit her former home.
She eventually faced down her fears and wrote Carlos Drummond de Andrade Stories, a suite of five art songs including a vocalese “Prologue” and four songs based on Andrade’s Brazilian poems. Upshaw recorded the suite with the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, and it has now been released as part of Schneider’s new album, Winter Morning Walks (ArtistShare). It’s a gorgeous record, but the difficult journey from Upshaw’s first request to the final album tells us a lot about the irresistible attraction and wary suspicion that still exist between jazz and classical music.
It took someone as open-minded as Upshaw to throw open the border checkpoint. A major star in the worlds of opera and art song, she has used her celebrity to champion contemporary composers such as Henryk Górecki, John Adams and Osvaldo Golijov as well as such American Songbook figures as George Gershwin, Vernon Duke and Richard Rodgers. She readily admits that she listens to a lot more classical music than jazz, but she insists that she’s “a real fan of Brad Mehldau and Miles Davis.”
“Golijov gave me a CD of Maria’s Concert in the Garden,” Upshaw says, “and it was love at first hearing. There was this abandonment and freedom in the music that seemed filled with joy. I also loved her contrapuntal writing for the players in her band. I then bought a bunch of other CDs and I decided I wanted to hear her live, so I started going to her concerts at the Jazz Standard every Thanksgiving. It became a ritual for my daughter and me.
“I was listening to her music for the 100th time while I was walking on the beach one day in Florida, and I just thought, ‘If this were a so-called classical composer, I would definitely approach them and ask them to write for me,’ because I’m always looking for collaborators. So I called her and asked, and she seemed scared. We were both nervous; we were both stepping out of our usual worlds.”
This was 2006, and Upshaw repeated her request to Schneider over lunch in New York City. The composer was flattered by the chance to work with a singer she greatly admired, and stimulated by the challenge of extending her work into new territory. But she was also wary. “Dawn’s question brought back all those old feelings from college: I’m going to be judged for not being avant-garde enough,” Schneider confesses. “In the academic world of 1979, when I entered the University of Minnesota, if your music wasn’t atonal and very challenging, you were considered irrelevant. It was as if the teachers had such a specific idea about what open-mindedness meant that they had become rigid and closed-minded. I could tell what they were expecting me to write, and it was in a language I wasn’t interested in. It was like I wanted to write poetry, and they were telling me I could only write it in Russian. I loved tonal music—I was listening to Ravel, Gil Evans and Bill Evans—but that was frowned on.”
This is the great irony. Classical music is often thought of as the conservative, melodic music, while jazz is usually considered the experimental alternative—and in concert halls, that assumption is valid more often than not. But in the academic world—and in the small recital halls where academic music gets played—it’s European art music that’s cerebral, conceptual and coldly forbidding, while jazz offers more melody, sensuality and tradition.
That situation has changed in recent decades, but in 1979, for a teenage girl from the small farm town of Windom, Minn., who loved Debussy and Mozart, jazz was still the academic route to take. A sympathetic classical teacher suggested that the kind of things Schneider was writing as a college freshman might work better in jazz; perhaps she should check out the school’s jazz big band. She did, and she never looked back.
Schneider’s journey in jazz brought her here: A one-bedroom apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, near Central Park. Her shiny, black upright piano is nearly buried beneath layers of hand-written, oversized scores. Above it are her sister’s small, framed paintings of sci-fi architecture; nearby is an admiring, scribbled note from Toots Thielemans, framed with a photo. The golden horn of a Grammy Award is shoved amid poetry volumes on a bookshelf. Schneider, 52, sits at the dining-room table, her strawberry-blonde hair falling away from her freckled face, past her pearl earrings and over the shoulders of a plain black shirt.
Twisting that hair in a knot behind her head, Schneider recalls how she gradually learned that Upshaw would never be as judgmental as those college professors had been. The singer genuinely admired the composer’s jazz orchestra—why else would she trek down to Jazz Standard every November?—and wanted to hear that same sensibility applied to soprano voice and chamber orchestra. So Schneider agreed to give it a try, but how could she adapt what she already knew to this fresh challenge? “I was used to writing for a rhythm section,” she explains, “where all the momentum comes from the drums, bass, piano and guitar, and the horns can lay down long lines over that propulsion. But I hate it when orchestras try to use their percussion section like a jazz rhythm section; it’s so noisy that it drowns out the singer and the strings. I wanted to write something where the rhythm came from the tones rather than the percussion, from the subdivisions of the beat as played by the strings and woodwinds.
“Dawn taught me so much in this regard—and it’s something that all of us jazz musicians can learn from. For her it’s all about the momentum of reaching for the end of the line. Jazz musicians tend to think of music vertically—how the harmony and rhythm line up. Classical musicians think more horizontally—what’s the note we’re reaching for—which gives them the flexibility to slow down or speed up in getting to the end of the line.”
How could Schneider find a way to generate her all-important pulse without relying on a conventional rhythm section? How could she get a chamber orchestra to produce the “groove and lilt” she wanted? Her jazz composing had many different aspects—from Gil Evans-like impressionism to Charles Mingus-like expressionism—but the facet that seemed most useful for the task at hand was Brazil’s choro music. “Choro is a good example of a music that grooves on its own counterpoint,” she says. “There’s an intricacy to the way the lines interlock that creates the rhythm—like the gears of a clock catching and uncatching. You don’t even need the percussion instruments.”
Originally published in May 2013