To many listeners, jazz is music of the city, filled with hard-driving rhythms and intense horn solos often echoing a restless, crowded, busy existence. But Maria Schneider's graceful, swirling compositions evoke feelings of running through open fields or sailing on a lake.
Schneider has lived and worked in New York City for more than two decades, yet her music is rooted in memories of growing up in a southwest Minnesota prairie town.
"I had a very, very rich childhood," Schneider says. "I can thank my family for that and the fact that I came from such a beautiful town in Minnesota. It gave me such a wealth of things to write about, even though these days my life in New York is pretty much work, work, work. Maybe that's why I always go back to childhood."
When Schneider returns to Minnesota this weekend, she'll bring with a her a new composition yet to be recorded, a love song to Windom called "The Pretty Road." It was inspired by remembrances of riding in the family car at night and seeing the lights of town over the crest of a hill. Schneider says the memories just emerged as she was composing:
"I didn't set out to write a piece about Windom called 'The Pretty Road.' I wrote this little idea, it was just the beginning of an idea and I was like, 'Wow, that reminds me of Windom,' and all of a sudden the memory of the pretty road came back to me. This has happened to me again and again. It's kind of like I can't help but write something about my past. It comes out and I recognize it at a certain point."
Schneider's Minnesota memories find their way into her music at surprising times. The title track of her Grammy-winning CD, "Concert in the Garden," is a composition filled with Latin American rhythms. While writing it she was unexpectedly taken back to a tree house built by her father on a small lake.
"There were a lot of willows along the lake and also cattails," Schneider recalls. "There were shore birds there and also yellow-headed blackbirds and great blue herons. The wind would just swoosh around the bay and all of those birds would bob on the reeds. So that whole beginning part, all of sudden I realized, 'oh, my God, this is sitting in the treehouse at pintail point. That's what I feel like."
Maria Schneider studied composition at the University of Minnesota where her teachers included Paul Fetler and Dominick Argento. She attended the University of Miami and the Eastman School of Music before moving to New York City. There a chance meeting with a friend of Gil Evans led to a job working with the legendary jazz composer and arranger. Evans' richly textured, impressionistic style of writing continues to be a big influence.
"Gil never wrote for a traditional big band. He had French horns," Schneider says. "He had double reeds sometimes, bass flute and all these different colors. And what I've been doing is putting multiple instruments on one note so that when you hear that note you can't tell what it is. Maybe it's a bass clarinet together with a bucket mute trombone and a bass flute and guitar and it comes out sounding something like a french horn. So that's how I've developed this way of making a big band sound like an orchestra."
Veteran jazz critic Doug Ramsey, who caught Maria Schneider with her orchestra in Seattle earlier this month, agrees that Schneider "has taken what she learned from Gil Evans and people like that and translated it into a very personal language of composing and arranging so that her pieces definitely have a stamp of her personality and her wonderful attitude of life on them."
The Seattle date showed Ramsey that Schneider can also be an engaging performer. "The club was absolutely packed," he says, "and she had people in the palm of her hands. She talks to the audience and she gets them involved in the stories that go along with the music she's playing. And she's wonderful to watch because she uses her tai chi training as part of her conducting style, so she's very graceful and a lot of fun to watch."
Maria Schneider's Sunday performance in Windom will be the second time she's visited her hometown with her orchestra. She and her band were there four years ago for what she describes as the most special concert she's ever done.
"I cried like a baby," she say, "because when I came out on stage everybody was there and they were clapping. My kindergarten teacher was there, my first grade teacher, kids I took ice-skating with, the doctor who brought me into this world, the nurse I got all of my inoculations from. I'm going to cry if I start talking about this because Windom is the platform of my whole life and I've had so much support from that even when I was a kid."
Maria Schneider says that if she hadn't had that support growing up, she wouldn't be doing what she's doing today: writing music that, as critic Doug Ramsey describes it, is intricate and demanding, but very rewarding. Maria Schneider brings her orchestra to the Ted Mann Concert Hall in Minneapolis Saturday night and Windom on Sunday.