Maria Schneider: The star of the show

Maria Schneider has collaborated with Bowie and won a flock of Grammy awards. No wonder her orchestra's visit to Cork is being hailed as a coup for the upcoming jazz festival, writes Philip Watson

Maria Schneider and her orchestra play City Hall during the Guinness Cork Jazz Festival. Picture: Whit Lane.

Maria Schneider has strong memories of the one and only time she has performed in Ireland. The American bandleader, widely considered to be one of the finest composers in contemporary music, appeared in Dublin with the Brussels Jazz Orchestra in 2001, just days after 9/11. Yet it isn’t just the traumatic events that shattered her adoptive city of New York that she recalls.

Introducing one of her most popular pieces, ‘Hang Gliding’, a sensuous and irresistible composition that floats, eddies and soars to “create the feeling of flying in sound”, Schneider explained that the work was largely inspired by an actual hang-gliding flight she had taken in Rio de Janeiro.

“All I was doing was telling this story about ‘doing it in tandem’, and being ‘strapped to a young boy’, and from there it just spiralled way out of control,” says Schneider.

The audience seemed to find innuendo in everything I said, and the more I tried to bail myself out, the worse it got. Everybody was just laughing hysterically.

“So I’m a little fearful of speaking to an Irish audience again, I must admit,” she adds, laughing herself. “You’re all so bawdy.”

A bandleader, arranger and composer whose 18-strong, all-star New York orchestra is among the most celebrated in America, 57-year-old Schneider is one of very few musicians to have won Grammys not just in both jazz and classical categories — but also for her arrangement for the 2014 David Bowie song ‘Sue (Or In A Season Of Crime)’.

As well as Bowie, she has worked with jazz arranger Gil Evans, opera singer Dawn Upshaw and US poet laureate Ted Kooser. She has also guest conducted more than 80 orchestras on four continents — but appearances, even in Europe, with her own ensemble are rare.

It makes the concert with Schneider’s New York Orchestra during the forthcoming Guinness Cork Jazz Festival a genuine coup.

It will be the first appearance in Ireland for Schneider’s orchestra, her first time at the jazz festival in Cork, and with it a major debut at City Hall — this is the first time the city’s main civic concert venue has been used for jazz festival events.

“How is the space acoustically — is it loud, is it echoey?” she asks. I tell her there are lots of hard surfaces. “OK, well, I’ll just have to decide when I see the room. I’ll have different set lists and extra music. I’ll think about it. Because I’m not just presenting a series of pieces; I’m trying to put together an overall feeling for a concert.”

ONCE MORE WITH FEELING

Feeling and emotion are qualities that come through again and again in Schneider’s music. Her compositions are like autobiographical short stories, powerful conduits for her many passions and concerns — from bird-watching to nature, the environment, and a strong sense of place (her upbringing in a small prairie town in rural Minnesota, in particular).

Most jazz is theme and variations, and I have some music like that, but for quite some time I’ve written pieces that are much more about taking you on a trip,” she says.

“It’s not just about how great the soloists can play, and they can; they really have to carry the composition. The musicians’ job is to create continuity, drama, expression and character, to bring the story to life, so that the audience really feels what I was feeling when I was writing the piece.”

Schneider’s diverse music transcends easy classification. Her work is through-composed and yet it has to be played by jazz musicians, because of the room for interpretation, the space for solos. Her musicians require classical training and control to play effectively together, to create one unified and organic sound. Her background is in classical music; she is largely self-taught as a jazz composer; and she has a strong interest in music from outside her traditions, in the beauty of Brazilian songs and rhythms, for example.

Whatever it’s called, Schneider’s music is resolutely not the sound of a traditional jazz big band. “I’m basically writing classical music, with Brazilian and world music overtones, that includes improvisation,” she says, when pushed.

Schneider is a wonderful anomaly, someone who works against the grain. She is a woman in the predominantly male worlds of jazz and contemporary composition. She is unusual in jazz circles in that she conceives and conducts rather than actually plays her own music. She is out of step with much modern composition in that she is mostly drawn to tonal music, to harmonies, however textured, coloured and complex.

And faced with the acute challenges of recording and touring a large ensemble, she has, for 26 years, since forming her orchestra in 1992, somehow made it work financially.

MUSICIANS’ RIGHTS

Schneider is also a strong and active advocate for musicians’ rights and change in copyright law. For the past 14 years Schneider has been one of the most high-profile musicians to release her music exclusively through creative crowdfunding website ArtistShare, and she is a critic of YouTube, Spotify and other streaming services — even testifying before US Congress. One of the blogs on her website is titled: ‘What Whore Houses, Meth Labs and YouTube Have In Common’.

“You know, to me, Google is the most dangerous force in our world, absolutely, without question. They have everybody in the world’s private information.

They have more power and money than governments. And they do things without telling people. Entertainment is what drives people around the internet, and Google and others are really scary, scary beasts that have grown largely on the back of music and musicians.

This is all surprising perhaps for someone who, on first appearance at least, seems so slight, so unassuming. Schneider, on the other hand, is a natural redhead and clearly has a rebellious streak, and I tell her, jokingly, that if she didn’t have such a definitively German surname, she could almost be Irish.

“Well, guess what?” she replies, quick as a flash. “I will never have my DNA done, because, of course, I don’t want Google knowing everything about me, but my sister got her DNA analysed and actually we have no real Germanic blood. Going back, at my very core, it’s all Norwegian...” she pauses for effect, “And Irish! So it’s kind of fun for me to be performing back in Ireland. Seriously, I’m so excited.”

- The Maria Schneider Orchestra appears at Cork City Hall on Sunday, October 28. guinnessjazzfestival.com

Here comes Donny

Almost all the members of Maria Schneider’s Orchestra appearing in Cork are respected leaders in their own right. Players such as saxophonist Scott Robinson, pianist Frank Kimbrough, guitarist Ben Monder and drummer Clarence Penn head their own bands, and compose and record their own music.

Few, however, have made as dynamic an impact, on jazz and beyond, over the past few years as saxophonist Donny McCaslin (below). A long-standing member of Schneider’s orchestra, McCaslin also creates his own high-energy and powerfully rhythmic jazz that embraces alt-rock, ‘prog-punk’, pop and electronica.

Most famously and prominently though he was hired — on Maria Schneider’s recommendation — along with his band, to play the music on David Bowie’s final studio album, Blackstar. Ben Monder also appears on that remarkable record.

In 2016 McCaslin released Beyond Now, an album containing versions of two Bowie songs, ‘Warszawa’ from Low and ‘A Small Plot of Land’ from Outside. He has just released his latest album, Blow (“a new definitive statement that fully realises Bowie’s influence”), which further mixes jazz with art-rock, indie vocals and edgy electronics, and features McCaslin’s characteristically gutsy and determined improvising.

“Donny is just such a monster in terms of what he can do on the instrument,” says Schneider. “But he also has this unbelievable ability to really structure a solo — they just build and build and build. My husband Mark says, ‘When Donny solos, it’s like a Martin Luther King speech.’ That describes it perfectly.”

The Donny McCaslin Group play the Everyman Theatre at 2.30pm on Sunday, Oct 28, as part of a double bill with Nnenna Freelon


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