Think of Maria Schneider as the Claude Debussy of contemporary jazz. Eschewing the traditional harmonic, rhythmic, and melodic shapes that determine so much of what is thought to be “jazz,” she has created an oeuvrethat is as arresting as it is original. Texture plays a large role in Schneider’s compositions, and not just harmonic texture, but orchestrational and formal as well. Indeed, the distinctions between these categories blur in her best work, which the Juilliard Jazz Orchestra will perform this month, in a concert that will conclude a week’s worth of master classes and rehearsals with Ms. Schneider.
At just the same time that Debussy’s influence took wing, jazz was evolving out of a century’s worth of musical cross-pollination in New Orleans. Within two decades’ time, Jelly Roll Morton and Duke Ellington appeared as the first composers to combine the improvisatory essence of jazz with predefined compositional forms that enhanced both qualities. To make theme-and-variations work as they’re being spontaneously created is something that has remained the ultimate challenge to those who would write and/or play jazz. Maria Schneider has found her own voice in the jazz tradition by consistently transcending its all-too-frequently restricting traditional borders. Like Ellington, she can take virtually any music and refract it through her own aesthetic lens.
Schneider has translated the hypnotic quality of the hard-swinging 4/4 beat that remains at the root of jazz’s rhythmic tree and transmuted it into any number of more complex meters and shapes. At times, you may be reminded of Steve Reich when confronting the repeated figures Schneider favors, but that is as far as the comparison can go. Her compositions challenge improvisers to hang their variations over rhythmic and harmonic shapes that would have stymied many of their predecessors. At a time when so much of jazz has become ultimately very conventional and conformist, Schneider’s music comprises so many layers that a casual listen will not suffice. Almost like a Chinese box, there are layers upon layers of a kind of simple complexity to her music that reveals itself only upon repeated exposure, as does all great art.
In an interview with John Dworkin for the Web site Jazzreview.com two years ago, Schneider talked about the inspiration she receives from the soloists in her band. “I think of it like being a jeweler,” she said. “He has this really beautiful stone and he tries to create a ring to offset that stone. That’s kind of what I’m trying to do. … That’s what Gil Evans did with Miles [Davis]. That’s where I really became inspired to do that. Because Gil had this incredible way of when the sound of the soloist would come in ... Whether it would be a singer—Astrud Gilberto on the arrangements he did for her or Wayne Shorter on the Individualism of Gil Evans or Miles Davis. When that soloist comes in he’s got a way of making it such a moment. Like the sky opening and the sun coming through the clouds or something. I want to make my music that way for soloists too.”
She also spoke about her compositional methods, explaining that “when I write music I don’t set out to write a piece in a certain style with a certain intent. What happens to me is: I sit down to write, eventually something starts to come to me, some idea that I like. More often than not that idea slowly reveals itself to me as being about something, or indicative of something. Some kind of feeling, past memory, experience, dynamic ... It’s got something and I say, ‘Oh my gosh. I know where this is coming from.’ It’s almost like when you have a dream and you’re like, ‘What was that about?’ And then all of a sudden you’re like, ‘Oh, I know what that’s about. That’s because this and this and this ...,’ and that’s what this dream represents. And then you start analyzing it and maybe even turning it into something that it wasn’t.
“That happens to me when I write music. Sound comes out—it reveals itself as being something—and then I use that experience that attaches itself to bring it to fruition. Now that’s very different than, ‘Can you write us a trumpet feature? We want something that’s fast and high and if you could incorporate "Sing Sing Sing" into it ...’ (laughs). You know what I mean? I can’t write that way ….”
Schneider’s mentors have been considerable: composers Bob Brookmeyer and Gil Evans both encouraged her to strive for the qualities that would make her unique. She encountered them in the mid-’80s, after studies at the University of Minnesota, the University of Miami, and the Eastman School of Music. I remember visiting her at that time in the apartment she shared with her then-husband, composer/arranger John Fedchok. Schneider was then doing copying work to supplement her income, but by 1993 she had formed her own big band, which built quite a following with a weekly engagement in Greenwich Village that lasted for five years. As has frequently been the case with American jazz artists, her music found a large and appreciative audience in Europe long before her home country embraced her. Many commissions and conducting engagements have come her way, including stints in Brazil, Italy, Portugal, France, Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Finland, Belgium, Holland, Germany, Slovenia, Austria, Canada, Scotland, Australia, Greenland, and Iceland, as well as across the U.S.
Her first recording, Evanescence, was nominated for two 1995 Grammy Awards. It was followed by Coming Aboutand Allégresse, which both received critical acclaim and Grammy nominations. Allégresse was also chosen by bothTime and Billboard in their lists of the top 10 recordings of 2000, inclusive of all genres of music. Concert in the Garden, released only through her Web site (www.mariaschneider.com), was a watershed in her career; it won the 2005 Grammy Award for best large-ensemble album and became the first Grammy-winning recording with Internet-only sales.
The Juilliard Jazz Orchestra has been busy rehearsing Schneider’s music since November, and while the technical and interpretative challenges have been many, the players will come to the concert not only well-prepared, but with their own slant on what is an intensely personal vision. Most of her music is conceived with a program in mind, and the orchestra’s soloists have been gradually discovering how to integrate their conception with the piece’s genesis.
On second thought—maybe it’s better not to think of Maria Schneider as Claude Debussy, but as nothing less than Maria Schneider. Her originality stands firmly on its own.