The Leader of Her Band - WALL STREET JOURNAL
2/23/2018 4:45:13 AM - The Leader of Her Band
August 30, 2007

Due primarily to logistics and overhead, most jazz musicians find it hard to keep a five-piece band together for more than a few months. Maria Schneider, by contrast, has kept her orchestra -- which is an 18-piece and sometimes larger ensemble -- together for 14 years, and it's growing in both popularity and artistry. "Sky Blue" (ArtistShare), Ms. Schneider's latest recording, is her best yet, and Sunday afternoon her band will play at the Tanglewood Jazz Festival in Lenox, Mass.

There are two keys to Ms. Schneider's feat: Her orchestra's sound is unlike that of every other big band in jazz today, and her two most recent albums -- "Sky Blue" and 2005's Grammy-winning "Concert in the Garden" -- were virtually commissioned by her fans.

Most big bands or orchestras derive their sound from two templates: the elegant and debonair swing of such classic ensembles as those of Count Basie and Duke Ellington or the intricate modernist experiments of Stan Kenton and Woody Herman's Second Herd. Ms. Schneider, however, is a disciple of Gil Evans and Bob Brookmeyer. Evans is the impressionistic arranger whose orchestrations for Miles Davis resulted in two of jazz's best recordings, "Sketches of Spain" and "Porgy and Bess" (both Columbia). "Gil's music really touched me," Ms. Schneider says during an hour-long conversation at her Upper West Side home this month. "It's always flowing -- there's air in it." While Mr. Brookmeyer is less well known, his structural innovations have pointed composers beyond the usual style of theme and variations.

Ms. Schneider, now 46, arrived in New York in the early 1980s and became Evans's assistant. His orchestrations "had the textures and depth of classical music, with this element of improvisation," she says. "To me it brought together both worlds in the most natural way."

After Evans died in 1988, Ms. Schneider developed her own orchestra, which for five years, beginning in 1993, played every Monday night at the Greenwich Village nightclub Visiones. It was there that her composing style began to emerge. Ms. Schneider's music is richly chromatic but centered on a particular soloist; most of her musicians have played with her for many years. She employs the different horn sections as well as the wordless vocals of Luciana Souza to create diffuse, watercolor-like swells behind the powerful and distinctive soloists in the band.

Although Ms. Schneider has created one of the most readily identifiable sounds in jazz, she doesn't play an instrument in public. She composes at the piano -- and during our interview she often hops up and runs over to hers to illustrate a particular facet of her work -- but in concert she turns the keyboards over to Frank Kimbrough. Instead of playing, Ms. Schneider conducts her band, and she's a kinetic force on stage, moving constantly as she directs her musicians.

Movement is a big inspiration for the intense Ms. Schneider, who keeps a photograph of the ballerina Sylvie Guillem over her piano. "I don't separate music from the body," she says. "The best music makes your body want to move. The image of flying, or the beauty of watching someone dance and all that extension and line and grace, makes me feel music; seeing birds flying, trees in the wind makes me think of music." During our talk, the discussion of music often drifts to birds, which have fascinated the composer since she was a girl growing up in Windom, Minn., and to Alessandra Ferri's final performances with American Ballet Theater earlier this summer.

Since she lacks a parallel career as an instrumentalist, most of Ms. Schneider's music is the result of commissions. She is also dependent on her band's concerts, clinics in which she teaches and coaches other musicians in her style, and revenue from recordings.

"I love them and I can't stand them," she says of her commissioned work. "I so much want everybody to be happy with the result, and I want me to be happy with the result. But at the end I'm so happy because it made me put myself through the pressure of completing it." Then she laughed. "It's like putting yourself through a garlic press. I would never do that if I wasn't somehow forced into it."

ArtistShare, the label that releases Ms. Schneider's music, is a new concept in recording. Developed by Brian Camelio, it's a business model that enables supporters to participate financially in artistic projects. Fans of Ms. Schneider could preorder the CD and watch various packages of recording sessions or concerts for prices that began at $24.95. The model, which eliminates the costly marketing and distribution functions of a typical record company, has enabled Ms. Schneider to make money from her recordings, a rarity in jazz.

"For me and most jazz musicians, making a record was something that was done to give you exposure. It's not really done to make any money, except for a few pennies somewhere down the road. But my last record through ArtistShare ["Concert in the Garden"] was a very expensive record, and I both recouped my expenses and made that much back. It gave me time to do another record," she says.

"I sort of had an idea that I wanted to start a band, but I didn't think of it as a career," she says of her early days in the music business. "I always thought that the career followed the passion. I never did something because it was a good career move. Starting a big band and keeping it together for many years is not, shall we say, prudent."

She cited the expenses of traveling with a large ensemble, the logistics of working with her musicians' schedules, and the difficulties of assembling her support staff. But the effort pays off.

"I love these musicians. And I love writing music that is highly orchestrated, that has different improvisers. And I love bringing all these people together -- all these different voices -- and being the catalyst for us creating a thing of beauty," Ms. Schneider says. "So, in a way, I didn't choose this career; it chose me."
Wall Street Journal -- Martin Johnson
The Thompson Fields:  “... this magnificent, nature-drunk masterpiece, one of the great jazz records period, not just one of the great recent jazz records.”

-- THE BUFFALO NEWS – Jeff Simon
The Thompson Fields: ***** "...there is nobody more capable of harnessing emotions in music and projecting and preserving the beauty and power of the natural world in sound than Maria Schneider. She's demonstrated that time and again, and she does it once more on this awe-inspiring release."

-- ALL ABOUT JAZZ – Dan Bilawsky
The Thompson Fields:  "This marriage of sounds, words and images is ultimately breathtaking, a testament not simply to the hipness of jazz but to the uplifting and sustaining powers of art."

"The Thompson Fields breaks through to a new level. It's her most ambitious recording, and her most accomplished; it places her in the pantheon of big-band composer-leaders, just below Ellington, Strayhorn, and Gil Evans at his very best; it's a masterpiece"

-- STEREOPHILE – Fred Kaplan
The Thompson Fields ***** (five stars)  "Her latest album, some 10 years in the making, shows just what a supple and powerful instrument a jazz orchestra can be."

-- THE TELEGRAPH – Ivan Hewett
The Thompson Fields: ***** (five stars) "...a sound-world of rare eloquence ... the singularly most beautiful record I've heard this year."

-- – Peter Quinn
"Maria Schneider is a national treasure."

-- NPR
The Thompson Fields: "... a masterpiece ... Schneider's lovely themes are immediately accessible, but this is also music whose intricate arrangements reveal new discoveries on repeated listening."

-- ASSOCIATED PRESS – Charlie Gans
"The Thompson Fields is a testament to the ever-evolving talent of Maria Schneider."

-- JAZZHISTORYONLINE – Thomas Cunniffe
"The Thomson Fields may be her finest triumph in a stellar career as a jazz orchestra leader, composer/arranger and conceptualist. No one in jazz today, or at least in big band jazz, writes in such evocative fashion. Five stars - and then some."

-- Ken Franckling's Jazz Notes – Ken Franckling
"The Maria Schneider Orchestra's ravishing new recording, The Thompson Fields, demonstrates her evolving vision for the evocative and deep nuances of sonic beauty that her music now radiates."

The Thompson Fields (*****five stars)
"...when the artistic offerings competing for our entertainment dollars and attention are vast compared to the days of five television channels and a handful of records labels, one artist has risen—in terms of talent and the beauty and perfection of her recent output—to an Ellington-ian level: Composer/arranger Maria Schneider."

-- ALL ABOUT JAZZ – Dan McClenaghan
"If you are able to cry over a piece of music. The Thompson Fields will make you cry."

-- STEREOPHILE (Recording of the Month) – Thomas Conrad
"The Maria Schneider Orchestra: Led by Ms. Schneider, a composer and orchestrator of penetrating insight, this group has an ambitiously realized new album – "The Thompson Fields," its first release in eight years – that underscores its stature as the pre-eminent large ensemble of our time."

-- THE NEW YORK TIMES - Nate Chinen
"The Thompson Fields" ***** (five-stars) "Heartening jazz suite that's too good to miss" 

-- THE GUARDIAN – John Fordham
The Thompson Fields:  "Beyond the searching solos and high virtuosity both on and off the paper, it’s the love poured into The Thompson Fields that flows back out of the speakers and makes it such an unusually moving work of art. It captures Schneider ’s artistic vision unlike anything else in her catalogue."

The Thompson Fields ***** "Beyond categorization….simply sublime...You don’t listen to CDs from the Maria Schneider [Orchestra]. You “experience” them."

"The Thompson Fields breaks that spell with an extravagant show of her strengths: precise, expressive harmony; ribbons of diaphanous texture; a rhythmic momentum that doesn’t feel propulsive so much as wind-borne. Her new pieces, inspired by various ecological and personal epiphanies, stands alongside the best of her previous work, which is saying something."

"With her third album, Allegresse, Schneider... has painted her masterpiece. ...This very well could be the finest jazz album of the year..."

"If anyone is passing out awards for new American music, he should consider composer Maria Schneider."

"Schneider has clearly learned Lester Young's gentle advice for those mining the Jazz tradition: 'You got to be original, man.'"

[Winter Morning Walks] ***** (five stars) "I regard this album as the most important set of song cycles since Andre Previn's 'Honey and Rue' and Peter Lieberson's 'Neruda Songs–and that is exceptionally high praise ... This is a phenomenal recording. Enough said."

'Winter Morning Walks' -- "Lyrical, flowing, intimately expressive, with all the elements of words, music, voice and instruments in a seamless blend, this is music to fall in love with the first time — then immediately want to hear again. "

'Winter Morning Walks' -- "hauntingly beautiful"

"[Winter Morning Walks] is a sterling standard for American art song."

"Led by its visionary composer, the remarkable Maria Schneider Orchestra made its Detroit debut Sunday afternoon, performing her exquisitely orchestrated, walking-on-air compositions with passion, nuance and unanimity of thought and feeling. The sheer elation of the music was profoundly moving."

-- FREEP.COM -- Mark Stryker
“Maria Schneider’s orchestral jazz is about feeling.  Like Wayne Shorter, she somehow expresses compassion through tones.”

-- NEW YORK TIMES -- Ben Ratliff
“To call Schneider the most important woman in jazz is missing the point two ways.  She is a major composer–period.” – TIME MAGAZINE

-- TIME MAGAZINE -- Terry Teachout
"From the lustrous opening chords of a Maria Schneider concert, you can feel you are swept off your feet and falling through space - but with the certainty that someone with a lot of emotional intelligence is there to catch you."

 "...she puts together stories that speak with the clarity of Ernest Hemingway and the musical grace of Aaron Copland."

"Twenty-one musicians of tremendous technical sophistication and emotional energy channel their talents through the direction of the most significant big-band jazz composer of our time."

"She now has become entrenched among the ranks of America's leading composers. ... For Schneider, the question is no longer whether she can sustain the heights she has attained on earlier recordings; it is now how far her musical journey will take her."

-- DOWNBEAT***** -- James Hale
"Blue, as in "Sky Blue" and "Cerulean Skies," reflects the young colorist's Picasso-like "blue period." Like the symbolic overtones associated with the color itself, Schneider's luminous, azure odes are imbued with mystery and serenity, beauty and truth."

"What she does, across the five elegant tracks of Sky Blue, is to create new strands of melody - finely crafted yet tough as steel cable - set within orchestrations that are richly detailed and unhurried, lush but never schmaltzy."

-- THE GUARDIAN -- John L Walters
"Sky Blue is an album of remarkable depth and beauty—an expansive, imagery laden experience, from an artist who’s ready to be considered in the same breath as those who’ve been so important to her own development."

-- ALL ABOUT JAZZ -- John Kelman
"Thanks to engineer Joe Ferla, the sound on Sky Blue is as charming as the music. "What is most personal," Schneider affirms, "can also be what is most universal." Sky Blue is an intimate statement that speaks openly to everyone who appreciates exemplary music."

-- ALL ABOUT JAZZ - Jack Bowers
"The disc [Sky Blue] is by far her most ambitious. It is also much more than your father's big band jazz dressed up with classical flourishes. It is integrated, orchestral, composed with specific musicians in mind and among the most arresting, accomplished music of the new century."

-- THE OTTAWA CITIZEN -- Doug Fischer
"Plan on wearing out this album [Sky Blue], because you will want to keep listening for deeper insights. All those little digits will eventually get their edges worn off from being played so often."

-- TUCSON CITIZEN -- Chuck Graham
"It seemed impossible for Schneider top her Grammy-winning Concert in the Garden, but she's done just that with Sky Blue. She has elevated her music to a seemingly impossible height. ... Cerulean Skies” is the masterpiece within a masterpiece, ... Magnificent. A magical work of art, from beginning to end."

-- ALL ABOUT JAZZ -- Dan McClenaghan
"Maria Schneider is both painter and aural poet..."

-- ALL ABOUT JAZZ -- R.J. DeLuke (Troy, NY Concert)
"Schneider brought her Jazz Orchestra to Disney Concert Hall on Wednesday with a program defining her unique style, its multiple pleasures, and its importance to contemporary jazz. …Schneider led her ensemble with graceful gestures, the subtleties of her conducting movements clearly bringing extraordinary layers of dynamic intensity to the performance. Like the music of her most obvious predecessors -- Duke Ellington and Gil Evans -- Schneider's reaches toward a significant new level of imagination, making hers the first truly novel approach to big jazz band composition of the new century."

LA TIMES: Don Heckman

-- LA TIMES: DOn Heckman
"The best album of 2004, by a wide margin, was Maria Schneider's Concert in the Garden (ArtistShare). Critics need to be careful not to mistake taste for trend, so I'm not sure how much to make of it that both this and Wayne Shorter's Alégria, my favorite from 2003, are Spanish-tinged. But this is unmistakably a step ahead for Schneider, whose voicings are as pellucid as any by her mentor Gil Evans, and whose touch, like Ellington's, is evident even in her sidemen's improvised solos."

-- VILLAGE VOICE -- Francis Davis
Let's cut to the chase: I LOVE THIS ALBUM. This is the most lush, lovely collection of music my ears have indulged in for quite some time. There's gorgeous writing; inventive, original, and captivating arranging, and a sympathetic cast of soloists and players.

Briene Lerrmitte, The Thompson Fields, 12 photos
12 Briene Lermitte Photos
"The Thompson Fields"
Whit Lane 4 photos
4 Whit Lane Photos
2 black/white and 2 color
Live Photos
6 Live Photos
Credits on Photo Files
Katz photos
Jimmy & Dena Katz Photos
5 Shots (4 color and 1 black/white)
by John Fordham
Recording of the Month
by Thomas Conrad
by Dan McClenaghan
by Peter Bacon
by Doug Ramsey
by Ivan Hewett
by Peter Quinn
by Fred Kaplan
by Peter Hum
by Dan Bilawsky
by Nate Chinen
by Jeff Krow
by Jeff Simon
by Steven Ritter
by Jeff Kaliss