Maria Schneider’s Birdland

By Devin Leonard

There is a wonderful picture of Maria Schneider at the Newport Jazz Festival last summer. Clad in one of her signature black dresses, her eyes are shut, her head is tilted to one side and her hair swings in the air.

The music of the most important composer in the jazz world has that kind of beauty—and it’s not one always associated with the genre.

“I don’t try to make music that sounds interesting,” she said when when we went with her on a bird-watching trip to Central Park earlier this year. “It’s that thing Wayne Shorter said to me about Miles Davis. He said Miles loved music that didn’t sound like music. I think that’s exactly the idea.”

For the most part, that is true of Schneider’s work. She writes lush, enveloping orchestrations. The trumpet section often plays softer sounding flugelhorns. Her saxophonists will put down their primary instruments and pick up flutes, clarinets and occasionally an English horn. Schneider brings in an accordionist to join in on some of her most recent works.

Schneider, who will turn 50 during her annual Thanksgiving residency at the Jazz Standard this year, uses this instrumental mélange to create music that is unapologetically beautiful. She writes melodies that have a way of morphing into tonal narratives, much like classical works do. What is more, her soloists all have their assigned roles in her musical dramas.

Greg Gisbert is her heroically lyrical flugelhornist. Rich Perry is provides a yearning, introspective voice on tenor saxophone. This much is certain: you will never hear anybody blow a long, self-indulgent solo in one of Schneider’s pieces because if she allowed her players to do that, her music would just sound like any other jazz band, and that would not be beautiful at all.

In fact Schneider does belong to a movement in jazz, a group of similarly inclined musicians who came of age in the nineties, like pianist Brad Mehldau, saxophonists Mark Turner and David Binney, guitarist Kurt Rosenwinkel, and the drummer Brian Blade. Their rise was a natural evolution in the history of jazz.

In the politically charged ’60s, the jazz avant-garde rejected melodic beauty in favor of dissonance and experimentation. Then in the Reagan era, the New Traditionalists, led by Wynton Marsalis, led a counter-revolution. They restored swing and melody as primary elements of jazz. Their hero was Miles Davis, the most gifted balladeer in the history of the art form. But Marsalis and his followers were too busy defusing all the bombs thrown out by their predecessors to make much of a new sound themselves.

It was only after the dust settled that Schneider and her allies showed up on the scene and started examining the implications of Davis’ lyricism. Mehldau wrote jazz nocturnes inspired by German romantics like Johannes Brahms. Binney crafted anthems influenced as much by Joni Mitchell as Wayne Shorter. These new musicians became fascinated with beauty, and their aesthetic has reigned in the jazz world ever since.

None of them tapped this vein as deeply as Schneider. She grew up in Windham, Minn., and wrote for jazz big bands at the University of Miami and Eastman School of Music. When she came to New York, she became an assistant to Gil Evans, the legendary arranger who was such a force in the creation of Davis’ classic Sketches of Spain session, and his famous adaptation of George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess.

Schneider’s earliest work was heavily indebted to her mentor, and she never pretended this wasn’t the case. The title track of her first album, Evanesence, released in 1994, is a tribute to her mentor.

Her own style didn’t really crystallize until after she visited Brazil in the late ’90s. Schneider was enthralled by the way music had become a part of the common language of the whole culture, not just a pastime, hobby, or special skill.

“Everybody somehow is musical,” Schneider said. “Everybody sits around the table and knows how to tap out certain rhythms, even if they are not musicians. Music is just part of the culture. I love that.”

Upon her return in 2000, Schneider recorded an album entitled Allegresse with pieces inspired by her trip. Unlike a lot of jazz musicians, Schneider isn’t afraid to articulate what her music is about. She plainly stated her intentions in the first sentence of her brief liner notes: “For this recording, I wanted to create music that conveys beauty.”

Perhaps the best example was the opening piece, “Hang Gilding,” an evocation, over a lilting Brazilian 5/4 beat, of what it felt like to fly over Rio de Janeiro.

Schneider continued to draw on folk music for the same effect in her subsequent work. There were stunningly beautiful compositions on her self-produced 2004 recording, Concert in the Garden, that were derived from Brazilian Choro (“Choro Dance”) and flamenco (the epic 18 minute “Buleria, Solea Y Rumba”). The album won a much-deserved Grammy and cemented Schneider’s reputation as the foremost jazz composer and big-band leader of her generation.

But there is an inherent tension in Schneider’s music. The difference between the truly beautiful and the merely pretty can be hard to discern. For the most part, she has trodden the fine line without a misstep. But to this critic’s ears at least, she lost her balance on Sky Blue, her most recent album released three years ago.

Pieces like “The Pretty Road” and “Cerulean Blue” were orchestrated perfectly and full of lovely detail. But they sounded like themes to forgotten B-movies. In other words, they sounded too much like music. (I have to add that I sat through these pieces in concert that year and was similarly disappointed.)

Some of Schneider’s compatriots–particularly Mehldau and Rosenwinkel–have hit similar walls recently. At the same time, some of the best young jazz musicians are drawing deeply from the work of the once-scorned avant-garde that preceded Schneider’s generation. We are living in time of high unemployment and political strife. It is any wonder that beauty is not longer as fashionable as it once was in jazz?

The good news is that Schneider’s prettiness stage was only temporary.

Last fall, she premiered two new works at the Jazz Standard. They were as weighty and magical anything she has previously written.

“The Thompson Field” smacks of Copland but this time, her New Americana is pitch perfect. It helps that the featured soloist is Ben Monder, a guitarist who gives “The Thompson Field” a sharp edge with his electronic effects.

Then there is “Nimbus,” a bracing feature for alto saxophonist Steve Wilson. Schneider said she was as surprised as anybody by its darkness.

“Maybe I just haven’t been to Brazil for a while,” she said, laughing. “It was kind like a lost part of myself came out again, this intense brooding.”