Maria Schneider could have an inflated ego. A perennial poll winner as a bandleader, composer and arranger, she has earned Grammy Awards for her past three albums, spanning the categories of Large Jazz Ensemble Recording, Instrumental Composition and, most recently, Contemporary Classical Composition. Yet while her music soars to lofty places, her head stays in check.
“I tend to go into things without a lot of confidence,” says the New York-based conductor of the 18-piece Maria Schneider Orchestra, which plays the Berklee Performance Center on April 26.
For 2013’s Winter Morning Walks, a collaboration instigated by opera singer Dawn Upshaw, Schneider took an extra leap, crossing into the classical genre and writing for vocals and strings. She drew inspiration and lyrics from the poetry of Ted Kooser and Carlos Drummond de Andrade in composing two long-form pieces, recorded with separate chamber orchestras. “I was really nervous about it because it was such new territory for me,” she says, “but I felt so in love with that poetry.”
She found her own poetic footing in Winter Morning Walks, which soprano Upshaw will perform at Tanglewood’s Seiji Ozawa Hall on July 23 with strings and Maria Schneider Orchestra veterans Scott Robinson (clarinet), Frank Kimbrough (piano) and Jay Anderson (bass). The full orchestra, Schneider’s primary vehicle for two decades, also plays that hall on Aug. 24 before entering the studio to record its next album.
That album should follow in the vein of the orchestra’s last release, 2007’s Sky Blue, which gracefully shifts from playful, impressionistic threads of piano and accordion to majestic swells of brass—and even bird calls in the Grammy-winning paean to migration “Cerulean Skies.” Minnesota native Schneider says two pieces for the upcoming album evoke the landscape of the Midwest, while another is inspired by birds-of-paradise.
It’s not that she aims to write about birds, she says, but rather that a budding piece will evoke a particular feeling or imagery that she then develops. “I’m not very conscious about where my music is going and trying to break that mold,” Schneider says. “I’m a believer that if you live a life that moves places, and if you write intelligently in response to your life and your inspirations, that your music reflects that in a natural way.”
Orchestra members also affect the process, as she leaves open space to mix composition and improvisation, much like orchestrator Gil Evans did with Miles Davis. “I’ve come to love that on a soulful and spiritual level,” says Schneider, who served as Evans’ assistant in his final years. “Every night, the music morphs into something fresh and unique that belongs to all of us.”
Schneider found her calling as a young girl, spending hours at the piano playing classical and popular music. Her mother bought songbooks of Cole Porter and George Gershwin for her birthdays and at Christmas. “Even though I didn’t have a lot of exposure to jazz, I knew the whole standard tradition,” she says. “What I loved more than perfecting my way of playing was blowing through tons of music. I was a really good sight-reader.” She soon gravitated to composing, especially after being stunned by a teenage pianist who had won a Mozart competition. “I realized, if she’s playing like that, I’ll never have that,” says Schneider, 53. “My interest was always more about what makes music sound the way it sounds and how can I create that.”
As a college composition major, Schneider shied from dense, atonal classical music and drew closer to jazz, earning a master’s degree from the Eastman School of Music before moving to New York. In 1992, she launched the Maria Schneider Jazz Orchestra, later dropping the “Jazz” because, she says, “I don’t want people coming in with an expectation.”
She worked as a music copyist during the orchestra’s lean early years. And even with acclaim, Schneider says she still owes about half of the $200,000 budget for Winter Morning Walks. Frustrated with unauthorized music available for free online and streaming services that pay artists a pittance, she just testified before Congress about altering copyright law to fit the digital age.
Schneider sells her albums online through the fan-funding platform ArtistShare, rewarding supporters with extra content that documents the creative process. “If I didn’t have ArtistShare, I would quit,” she says. “I can’t live on air.”
The Maria Schneider Orchestra plays the Berklee Performance Center on April 26.