For Maria Schneider, there’s no place like home

Composer-conductor Maria Schneider.
Photo by Jimmy and Dena Katz
Composer-conductor Maria Schneider.

MONTEREY, Calif. — In February 2006, when composer and conductor Maria Schneider brought her jazz orchestra to the Ted Mann Concert Hall as part of the Northrop Jazz Season, she talked about her childhood home of Windom, Minn., in the most affectionate terms.

“For me,” she told the crowd (which included her mother and a hometown cheering contingent), “it was the center of the earth, and it still is.”

She hasn’t lived in Windom for many years. After studying at the universities of Minnesota and Miami and the Eastman School of Music, she moved to New York City in 1985, formed her own jazz orchestra in 1992, and has traveled extensively, leading her orchestra and guest conducting at festivals and concert halls across Europe and North America, in Brazil and Australia, Scandinavia, Greenland, Iceland and Macau.

Nominated for several Grammys, she has won two, in 2004 for her album “Concert in the Garden” (the first Grammy winner available only on the web, through the fan-funded ArtistShare site), and in 2007 for her composition “Cerulean Skies,” which appears on her latest CD, “Sky Blue.”

‘A major composer — period’
She has been hailed as “the most important woman in jazz,” an assessment critic Terry Teachout neatly dismissed. “To call Schneider the most important woman in jazz is missing the point two ways,” he wrote in Time magazine in 2000. “She’s a major composer — period.”

You can take the girl out of Windom, move her to Manhattan, stamp her passport and shower her with praise, but you can’t take Windom out of the girl. Schneider returns for high school reunions, and much of her music is rooted in her memories: of the town and a nearby lake, of cresting a hill and seeing the lights of the town spread out below, of waiting for the school bus and hearing a meadowlark sing.

Her latest Windom-inspired work, “Willow Lake,” will receive its world premiere tomorrow night (Saturday, Sept. 20) at the 51st Annual Monterey Jazz Festival. “It’s a very pastoral sort of piece,” she said last week by phone from New York City. “It has a similar vibe to ‘Pretty Road.’ ” I’m glad to hear that because “Pretty Road,” a tune on “Sky Blue,” has been one of my favorites since the Ted Mann show.

Her second Monterey commission
This is the second time Monterey has awarded Schneider a commission. “I’m excited to be there again. We don’t play U.S. festivals very often. [Monterey] was the first one to give me a big commission and a big break, and I’ve never forgotten that.”

Although Schneider leads what is technically a big band — 18 musicians, lots of brass — it doesn’t sound anything like most big bands. It really is a jazz orchestra, playing original music that is lush and lyrical, luminous and densely layered, but with room for soloists to stretch out.

“I try hard not to make my group sound like a big band,” she explained. “It’s always a challenge: how to bring subtlety and space to the music, and chill out the overwhelmingness of the brass.”

When we spoke, it was immediately after her first full rehearsal of “Willow Farm” with her orchestra, and she was wired and worried, a normal stage in her creative process. “I always freak out when I hear something new,” she said. “I hear it in my head one way, and if it doesn’t sound the way I heard it, I immediately go into an internal panic.”

A different kind of writing
Writing for orchestra means spelling out every note. Writing for jazz orchestra means leaving room for improvisation, which by definition is unpredictable. “This piece has two soloists,” Schneider explained, “and the melody goes back and forth between the two, and we have to figure out where they improvise and how.”

Between the first rehearsal and the orchestra’s arrival in Monterey, Schneider’s plan was to spend days studying the rehearsal recording bar-by-bar, rewriting and revising. She and her orchestra will reconvene on Saturday morning, then perform at 8 that night for a sold-out crowd at the open-air Jimmy Lyons Arena, the festival’s largest venue.

“Originally I started a whole different piece,” she confessed. Halfway through, she realized it was “dark and brooding.” So she started over.

“I said to myself, ‘Those people [in Monterey] will be sitting outside under the stars.’ I imagined the scene and a much more beautiful and optimistic sound came out, and I said, ‘I’m going to take this.’ “

What will she do after Monterey? Go home to Windom and stay at Willow Lake Farm, which is still owned by the same family she knew as a child. “They were my family’s best friends. … Going there is rejuvenating.

“Not everything is hunky-dory when you’re growing up, but I have this belief about music. All the music I love I consider to be music that changes pain, sadness, and melancholy into beauty. Not that my childhood was all joyful, but there were many joyful, magical things. Not that all of my music is necessarily joyful, but I like to take even the darkness and turn it into something beautiful.”

Note: Maria Schneider will return to Minnesota next month for another world premiere, this one commissioned by the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra. For soprano Dawn Upshaw, one of the SPCO’s artistic partners, Schneider has set a cycle of poems by Brazilian poet Carlos Drummond de Andrade to music. Visit the SPCO’s website for more information.

Upcoming picks

I’m in Monterey for the jazz festival this weekend, but if I weren’t, this is the music I would go to hear:

Mulligan Stew: Created by area saxophonist Dave Karr, Mulligan Stew recreates the sound of the legendary Gerry Mulligan Quartet, with Karr on the baritone saxophone, Dave Graf on trombone, Gary Raynor on bass, and Phil Hey on drums. The Artists’ Quarter, 9 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Sept. 19-20 ($10).

Snowblind: Shilad Sen on tenor sax, Adam Rossmiller on trumpet, Scott Agster on trombone, and Graydon Peterson on bass. No piano? No piano. Learn more here. Late night at the Dakota, 11:30 p.m. Friday, Sept. 19 ($5).

Sambanova CD Release: “Sambanova” is the latest CD from educator, composer, and performer Joan Griffith. Featuring original works and Brazilian standards, it’s lovely; I’m listening as I write this. Griffith will be joined by pianist Laura Caviani, Gary Gauger on percussion, Clea Galhano on recorder, and vocalist Lucia Newell. The Artists’ Quarter, 7 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 21 ($10).

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