Maria Schneider and her orchestra bring their unique brand of jazz to Ann Arbor
Michael Jewett: Saturday night in Ann Arbor. University Musical Society is presenting, in their UMS debut, composer/conductor Maria Schneider and her orchestra. Maria Schneider joins us now to talk about the show, to talk about the latest projects, and I'm sure all sorts of interesting things. Hello, Maria Schneider. What a treat to be able to talk to you.
Maria Schneider: Hi, Good to be here.
Michael Jewett: Yes, indeed. Well, first up, welcome to our area. I know you played here some time ago, but it has been a while. On that subject of the years, your orchestra celebrated 30 years last year as an entity last year or the year before. I've got that right?
Maria Schneider: Right now, Literally, literally, like last week, we started a 30-year...or 30 years ago, we started a weekly gig in New York at a little club called Visioni's, and it went on for five years. It was really our beginning, and we had just recorded Evanescence. So, that technically was recorded, I guess, last September, 30 years ago. It didn't come out for a couple of years because, even back then, my first project was a do-it-yourself, and then I sold it to a record label. But, yeah, it's unbelievable. Three decades.
Michael Jewett: Well, congratulations on this milestone. You know, this is 30 years as an entity really in any and every field. But a jazz orchestra is a pretty unique undertaking. So, congratulations! And, yeah. Bravo, Bravo. Now, you've had some fellow travelers in there. There are some members of the band that have been there for a good long while.
Maria Schneider: Yeah, quite a few guys in the band have been. We've been together that entire time. And what's crazy about this tour, something amazing happened on this tour, and that's that every single musician is there, barring some catastrophe. I got to knock on wood, though.
Michael Jewett: Yeah, right.
Maria Schneider: Anyway. Every single musician that was that is, you know, in the band just is there. So, it should be really, really fun. We just came off of a tour in California. And so, we're really looking forward to sharing music largely from our newest double CD, Data Lords.
Michael Jewett: Yeah, I want to talk about Data Lords in particular, but first I want to take a little sidetrack. You know, I know musicians mostly from their work, and I really don't really know too much about them. I kind of like glanced at, you know, a couple of bios. I understand that you're--and I think this theme actually kind of runs through your work--the connection to nature. And, actually, you know, the second half of Data Lords is our natural world. You are a fairly passionate birdwatcher or, you know, ornithologist, something like that?
Maria Schneider: Well, I wouldn't say ornithologist, but yeah, a birder.
Michael Jewett: Do you do bird counts?
Maria Schneider: Years ago, I did. I even wrote a piece called Bird Count. But I mean, these days I don't often have time to get out specifically on bird counts, but I do log what I see, you know, in Cornell's sometimes. Not often. I have a e-bird.
Michael Jewett: I have a family member who's an avid birder, so I had to get the bird question in.
Maria Schneider: Oh, great.
Michael Jewett: Yeah. So, did this kind of, like, passion for nature, birds in particular and music. Which kind of came first? Or are they kind of cued?
Maria Schneider: Well, for me, music just is a conduit for expressing things in life and somehow bringing them into a form that I can hang onto them, maybe, make them tangible, and share them. I think, you know, with experience, because experience just kind of, you know, evaporates, and it's very ephemeral or, you know, it just kind of goes. But if you somehow can capture a feeling or a sensibility or an experience in music and kind of relive it and share it, I think that's what I'm trying to do somehow, like, subconsciously.
Michael Jewett: Mm hmm. I'm speaking with composer and conductor Maria Schneider. Maria Schneider and her orchestra make their UMS debut in Ann Arbor Saturday Night, Hill Auditorium. This is a big, big happening. And a lot of people are very, very excited by this, myself included. Data Lords. Your most recent. A couple of Grammys, actually for, if I got it right, best original composition, best instrumental composition, and also for best outstanding large ensemble jazz recording. It is a pretty timely and also, well, timeless type of piece of work or I've described it, it's a big work in two parts. And, as you listen on the record, the digital world and our natural world, and I think you know, those words "the" and "our" are pretty important here.
Maria Schneider: Yeah, it's funny. At the last minute, I was like, "Wait a minute. Yeah, this has to be called our natural world." I mean, you know, with the inundation of big data companies and are being made in a very addicted to devices that are ultimately manipulating us. And it is--I really think it is--like cigarette companies, you know, that know they're making children addicted, people addicted, dependent and they want that slow drip of data coming in. It's not such a slow drip, you know, from everybody. And I think it makes it harder for people to think on their own, to have space in their mind, to form their own ideas, their own opinions. You know, people just jump on the train of whatever caustic thing they think they can align themselves with. And, you know, there's just a thousand ways in which it manipulates us. And so, that second CD, I didn't even set out to write a double CD. I was writing this music that was very, um, you know, disparate, you know, some of it was, you know, don't be evil, you know, and Google and Data Lords, annihilation of humanity at the hands of, you know, AI mean, all these things. But then, I would write this piece, you know, using a piece of pottery and the sounds of it, and, you know, things that have to do with silence or just looking up or, you know, all things kind of coming from when you unplug from that stuff and you reconnect to art and nature and humanity and just your own silence. And so, I I thought, "Oh, there's just no way I can record this music together. It's just so wildly, you know, different." And then all of a sudden, one night. I was laying in bed and I thought, "Oh, wait a minute. The music is showing me that this struggle between my own life and hanging on to these two different worlds." And I describe, you know, that one world, basically, you know, manipulates us and the other world leaves us to our own thoughts and devices and freedom ultimately.
Michael Jewett: Liberates us, if you will.
Maria Schneider: It liberates. Yeah, absolutely. And so, I just thought, "Wow. Okay." Here's an example where, again, the music shows you what your own truth is more than if you decided what your truth is. And then, you tried to make the music about that somehow. You know, the music kind of guides you. And I think that is what happens when people sit with silence and create, you know, whatever they create something real from the inside comes out.
Michael Jewett: I want to ask you, and you kind of touched on it a bit. I wanted to ask you kind of how the creative process or processes, I guess, plural, works for you. I mean, do you have like rituals or is it very structured or whatnot? It's like, composing. You know, as a jazz fan, lifelong jazz fan, I'm always, like, in awe of people who can create, like, this amazingly rich, textured, imaginative music. But it's not, like, I mean, this isn't, you know, does this happen? I mean, you're having a cup of tea and all of a sudden this piece is there?
Maria Schneider: Not very often.
Michael Jewett: Not very often. It doesn't work. It's not like the bolt of lightning thing. =
Maria Schneider: I had one tune come to me in the laundry room. That happened once.
Michael Jewett: Okay.
Maria Schneider: But, usually, it's sitting there and, you know, just grinding away, trying to figure out something, trying to shake some idea loose that takes a life of its own. And. You say, "Wow, I want to follow that." And it's strange because it's this weird process where you just feel like you know nothing and you're trying and and working and you have to sit there and get through that because, if you don't, you can't just wait for every idea to come to you. Occasionally, it happens. But, you know, usually, you have to work it. And, a lot of times, it'll feel stiff. And you're just thinking, "I know nothing!" And then, all of a sudden, something shakes loose. And, invariably, you feel like, "Well, I didn't really do that. The stuff I did was all the crap that I felt like throwing away." And then, suddenly, I got lucky. And this one idea came to me. So, it's, you know, we creative people don't very often give ourselves a pat on the back. Every once in a while, I do, but it's far down the road in retrospect. You know, it's a very self-critical process and it's not easy to endure. That's for me, anyway.
Michael Jewett: Well, initially the the your group was the Maria Schneider Jazz Orchestra, but, for most of its life, it's best known as the Maria Schneider Orchestra. And I don't really want to read any, but I don't really read anything into that or the slight change in name. But in the realm of what we call jazz, it's kind of rare to have composers and conductors. When we think of the prominent people like that, we can count them on, you know, maybe a couple of hands. You know, you're on there, you know, your mentor and inspiration, Gil Evans, and thinking maybe George Russell, maybe a couple of other people who have tried. Early on, as you kind of got into this field, it became apparent at some point in your life that this is who you are. You're a composer, and your instrument is, you know, is the orchestra. You're a composer/conductor, which is something people are certainly more familiar with in the classical world. How do you think people have kind of, like, responded to you over the years or whatnot? It's like, you know, most people, you know, they think, you know, well, there are this instrument and a composer. But you're a composer/conductor.
Maria Schneider: Well, I took the word jazz out, first of all, because the word jazz has implications to different people. And people love to get all argumentative about what is and isn't jazz. And I just thought, you know, I'm just--
Michael Jewett: Now, wait a minute. Are you saying jazz people are argumentative?
Maria Schneider: Well, it can be. You know, I mean, some people really defend that word in a traditional sense. To me, what jazz is is about listening, not coming in with an agenda, and being open minded. To me, jazz is like democracy in music. It's the listening. It's everything that we don't have in our real world now. You know, just being vulnerable, not coming with an agenda, listening, being affected by somebody else, going someplace you never imagined you would go on your own. And that, you know, for me as a composer, the reason--there are a couple of reasons--that this is just my medium. It's that there's so many available colors that you can get out of the orchestra. And when I added accordion, that really made a difference. But then also, the whole idea of writing for this whole array of improvisers that I can set up all these different types of worlds and platforms in which people can express themselves. And I love that, you know, my music can be taken different places. I don't want people to feel like, "Hey, I want to show everything I practiced last night on this piece." You know, I want them...of course, everything they practice last night is maybe important, but I want it all to be to the end of us creating something together. My music comes there part way, and they extend that in their own way the rest of the way. And, in that way, it's kind of, like, you know, my improvization with them, you know, just letting that openness happen in the music and me reacting in an open way, even as a conductor too.
Michael Jewett: I'm speaking with Maria Schneider. Composer/conductor Maria Schneider and her orchestra make their UMS debut Saturday night in Ann Arbor at Hill Auditorium--what promises to be a pretty memorable night of music. The most recent project is called Data Lords: available via Artist Share. The program notes about the concert say selections from this. So, I don't want to give away everything because, you know, one should attend a performance looking for surprises and whatnot. Are there new works that haven't seen a recording that we might hear?
Maria Schneider: Yeah. I think I'm going to do probably two brand new works that I'm excited about. One is called...well, one is inspired by the bird called the Great Potoo, which is a crazy, crazy bird that I saw in Brazil. The other one is called American Crow. And as much as, you know, being like about the American crow, the bird, it's the idea of American crow. What I was just talking about this thing where everybody now thinks that they know what's right and nobody listens to each other anymore. So, it's looking back at a time when I was young, when I grew up in a town of people of all different persuasions and opinions, and they could be friends. They could be married to each other, you know, as opposed to now people can't even talk to each other and listen. And so, the piece puts us through the comparison, the looking back and where we are now in terms of music and features Mike Rodriguez. And we're just developing this piece. But he is unbelievably fabulous on this piece. It's crazy how beautiful he is. So, it's been fun to do it. And we just we're doing it in California. And a lot of people came up and said, "Oh, my gosh! If you had said that to me, it would have made me crazy. But then I heard the music and I could feel it. And it really made an impression." And I was like, "Oh, wow. Bingo!" Okay, well, maybe there's hope that people can listen to each other because I don't think we can survive where we're at for too long.
Michael Jewett: Yeah.
Maria Schneider: It does have kind of crow silence in it, too. I figured out how to get kind of a "CAW!!" out of the trumpet section, which is pretty fun.
Michael Jewett: Very good. Very good. Composer/conductor Maria Schneider. Her orchestra, Data Lords, and more. Saturday night in Ann Arbor at Hill Auditorium. I want to thank you for your time and generosity in speaking with us. You know, best of luck. Have a fantastic show, a great tour. And we look forward to anything and everything coming from you and the orchestra in the days ahead. So, thank you so much.
Maria Schneider: Well, thank you. And, you know, anybody who's listening to this that wants to come, I promised we're going to put on a good show and can't wait to see you. I'm going to bring CD's. I'll be signing CD's and announcing kind of a a new big project we're doing that's kind of fun. I'll just say one word: vinyl.
Michael Jewett: Vinyl. Oh, boy. Yeah, that's the magic word. You said it. You said it. The analog.
Maria Schneider: Yeah, yeah, yeah. And I wanted to do something vinyl for a long time, so I finally got an idea for something I'm going to do that's celebrating our 30 years with vinyl.
Michael Jewett: Fantastic. Fantastic.
Maria Schneider: Yeah.
Michael Jewett: Maria Schneider and the orchestra. Saturday night. Hill Auditorium in Ann Arbor. Complete information at UMS dot org. Thank you again.
Maria Schneider: Thanks so much.
Maria Schneider Orchestra at UMS
Non-commercial, fact based reporting is made possible by your financial support. Make your donation to WEMU today to keep your community NPR station thriving.
Like 89.1 WEMU on Facebook and follow us on Twitter
Contact WEMU News at 734.487.3363 or email us at email@example.com