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STORY: Maria Schneider credits David Bowie and Dawn Upshaw for instilling her with ‘fear’ when they collaborated

San Diego Union-Tribune

George Varga

February 26, 2023

The winner of seven Grammy Awards in four different musical categories, the Minnesota native is a pioneer in crowd-funded music projects and a staunch defender of artists’ rights

David Bowie, opera star Dawn Upshaw and jazz harmonica legend Toots Thielemans were each delighted to work with acclaimed composer, arranger and orchestra leader Maria Schneider, whose seven Grammy Award wins have come in four different musical categories.

Yet, while Schneider was similarly delighted to work with them, she had another reaction to teaming individually with Bowie, Upshaw and Thielemans. In a word: fear.

It’s the same emotion this small-town Minnesota native cites as a constant throughout her 30 years as the leader of the groundbreaking Maria Schneider Orchestra, whose 2023 West Coast tour includes a concert here next Sunday. The group’s lineup includes such standout musicians as guitarist Ben Monder, pianist Gary Versace and saxophonists Donny McCaslin and Steve Wilson.

“The one common thread I’ve noticed in every period of my career, with all the music I’ve done that is important to me, is there has been a huge element of fear!” Schneider said with a chuckle. “And I’ve somehow managed because I had to face the fear, which is a good lesson.

“Fear is good because I can learn something that might help me approach my next phase with a little more maturity.”

Schneider, a 2020 American Academy of Arts & Sciences inductee and a 2019 National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master, chuckled again.

“David (Bowie) said a great thing to me, which was super helpful, because I was really nervous doing the project with him,” she recalled, speaking from her New York City home.

“He said: ‘Maria, the great thing about music is that if the plane goes down, we’ll walk away.’ So, what does it matter? If I wrote a stinker, will anybody die from that?”

If Schneider has written any stinkers, they remain locked away and unheard. And while fear may motivate her music in a big way, she has been fearless in a number of other ways.

Over the past decade, Schneider has tirelessly spoken out on behalf of musicians. She has targeted YouTube and streaming services, many of which pay artists a mere pittance for the music they stream and make it very difficult for independent artists to keep their music from being streamed.

Her 2005 album “Concert in the Garden,” released by the innovative ArtistShare label, became the first crowd-funded recording in history to win a Grammy for a release that was not available in stores.

In 2014, Schneider testified before Congress about outdated music copyright laws enacted decades before the dawn of the internet. She subsequently co-founded, whose website describes the nonprofit as “a rapidly growing organization of 4,000 songwriters, composers, performers and producers seeking to reclaim and protect our rights in the digital age.”

Schneider is also part of a lawsuit against YouTube that takes the company to task for not protecting the copyrights of independent artists.

“Musicians can’t protect their intellectual property in a marketplace where they can’t choose the price,” Schneider said. “My records are really expensive to make. “They cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, each, and I have a small niche audience.

“So, to pay for my records I need to charge a decent price. When streaming companies charge $9.99 a month for all the music in the world, are you kidding me? That will never scale. Musicians are going into massive debt to get their recorded work out, with very little chance of earning any revenue back.”

On Tuesday, after this interview took place, it was announced that Schneider is one of the 2023 inductees into the American Academy of Arts and Letters. This year’s other inductees include film director Francis Ford Coppola, actress Frances McDormand, and Pulitzer Prize-winning composer and UCSD professor Roger Reynolds.

As befits an artist who began her career working as a music copyist for famed Miles Davis collaborator Gil Evans, one of her key early mentors, Schneider composes with such skill, verve and clarity that her orchestra becomes a unique instrument of her own making.

The nine albums she has made with her ensemble over the past several decades have established her as a singular artistic voice. Schneider’s meticulously crafted music blurs the lines between jazz and classical music, chamber works and art songs, luminous instrumental layers and potent, in-the-moment solos by her band members.

That singularity will be showcased when Schneider and her 18-piece orchestra make their long-overdue debut here next Sunday at La Jolla Music Society’s Baker-Baum Concert Hall.

Asked if their performance will include her 2022 composition, “The Great Potoo” — one of several works by Schneider that reflect her passion for birding — she responded by asking detailed questions of her own about the acoustics in the Baker-Baum.

Her attention to detail about how her music is heard by audiences, live and in real time, mirrors her fastidious approach to writing and arranging.

Witness Schneider’s superb 2020 double-album, “Data Lords,” which won a Grammy in the Best Large Jazz Ensemble Album category and made her a finalist for the 2021 Pulitzer Prize for music. The multidimensional music on “Data Lords” — which sings the praises of nature and laments the dangers of technology run amok — lends itself well to being performed in some concert venues, but not others.

“I’m bringing a lot of music with us for this tour,” Schneider said. “Then I make decisions about what to play according to what the room we are performing in sounds like. A lot of ‘Data Lords’ is extremely intense. So, if it’s a super-loud room, that will be difficult for us because ‘Data Lords’ has amplified guitar.

“I have a great sound-man for this tour. Sometimes I make the decision at the sound-check that day about what we’ll play at the concert that night. I keep things malleable.

“The other thing,” she added, “is that it’s really good for the band not to know (in advance) what they are playing every night and to have the concert feel a little improvisatory for them. Sometimes, it’s a matter of what’s feeling good that day.”

For Schneider, what feels good is music that paints vivid pictures about the world around us and the increasingly daunting challenges of modern life. She combines the spirit of adventure and mindfulness of a great jazz artist with a classical composer’s command of orchestral light and shade. The soundscapes she creates can be lush and pastoral, playful and poignant, steely and provocative.

One of the best examples of Schneider’s ability to transcend different genres and approaches is her multiple-Grammy-winning 2013 album, “Winter Morning Walks.” It features music she composed specifically to be set to the poetry of Ted Kooser, the Poet Laureate of the United States from 2004 to 2006, whose words are sung by noted soprano Dawn Upshaw.

Upshaw is also a multiple Grammy-winner. The album features her and key members of Schneider’s ensemble with both the Australian Chamber Orchestra and the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra.

While Schneider takes pride in her albums as lasting documents of her work, she also regards her recordings as launching pads for live musical performances that can change shape from concert to concert.

“I love that my music becomes something a little different than what I conceived because of the musicians playing it,” she said. “And if I go someplace else (and perform) with different musicians, the music can go somewhere else. That is so wonderful and that is the joy of my life.”

How important is it for Schneider and the members of her orchestra to surprise each other?

“The thing I love in these musicians so much is that they are risk-takers and they thrive on playing different things,” she replied.

“If I compliment (guitarist) Ben Monder on something he played, you can rest assured I’ll never hear him play it that way again! That means he knows I heard it, and he heard it, too. But it’s wonderful because the guys in the orchestra are always looking for something new in the music. And they are such good listeners that a soloist can throw out something new and the whole rhythm section will follow and go into an unknown direction.

“On the other hand, they know my music so well that they know how to keep it connected so the pieces have an element of inevitability, even with all the surprises. I’ve come to love that element so much that the thought of writing fixed pieces that don’t have that feel lonely to me.”

Schneider’s ability to fuse foreign and familiar musical components in vibrant new ways is one of her trademarks. So are her stacked harmonies and multifaceted arrangements, which simultaneously salute and extend various orchestral and jazz big band traditions.

Her music at a New York concert so impressed David Bowie that in 2014 — just two years before his death — he invited Schneider to write and record together.

The song that resulted, the brooding “Sue (Or In a Season of Crime),” paired the two of them with her orchestra for a haunting collaboration unlike anything Bowie had done before. It won the 2016 Grammy Award for Best Arrangement, Instrumental and Vocals.

“When David wanted to collaborate and we first got together — I’m sitting right now where he was sitting then — he gave me the beginning of a song he wanted to work on together,” Schneider recalled.

“I asked him: ‘What are you thinking?’ He said: ‘I want it to be really dark.’ Then, I asked him: ‘Do you know what you want it to be about, in terms of lyrics?’ He said: ‘Maybe vampires’ and was all excited. And he told me the music of mine he was most attracted to was my early, dark music.”

Had all gone as Bowie hoped, an entire collaborative album would have followed. But the timing was off.

Schneider and her orchestra were committed to recording their 2015 album, “The Thompson Fields,” and had already booked studio time. She suggested he instead team up with the four-man band led by longtime Schneider orchestra saxophonist Donny McCaslin, who also performed on “Sue.” Bowie did exactly that and the result was his masterful final album, “Blackstar.”

For Schneider, “Sue” turned out to be a pivotal work that represented a major demarcation point in her work as a composer.

“My music took a brighter turn after I visited Brazil in the late 1990s,” she said. “What I heard there made me realize that music can be deep and joyful at same time, and more nature-filled.

“With David, we delved back into this other, dark world and it was really fun! When I first wrote jazz compositions, I had the idea that ‘serious jazz’ had to be serious and more brooding. With David, I realized dark music could be fun.

“I recorded ‘The Thompson Fields’ album with my orchestra and I love it. It’s bucolic and a lot of people tell me it’s their favorite of mine. ‘Sue’ was released when I was mixing ‘The Thompson Fields’ album.

“I wrote David that after listening to ’Sue” about five times, even the darkest track on ‘The Thompson Fields’ felt like such a shock — in such in a tamer direction — and that coming back to my world felt like someone had twisted my head so far to the right that it snapped off. And then I asked: ‘What have you done to me?!’

“He wrote back: ‘My work here is done!!’ ”

Maria Schneider on:

Being an independent artist: “It’s not easy. But, for me, it was the only way. When I started out recording (in the early 1990s), I wanted more days in the studio and to spend more time in post-production, and it got more and more expensive. I had to cut out the middleman and set my own price.”

Wearing many hats as a band leader: “Oh, my God — so many hats! It’s like I even work on the flights, the tour scheduling and figuring out the menu of what we’ll all eat after each gig. I also figure out all the financial aspects of leading the band and producing our records. You have to be a little crazy to do this.”

Miles Davis orchestrator Gil Evans, one of her early mentors: “Gil was like almost a sorcerer. He was like Yoda! He was masterful, very kind, soft-spoken and generous, and I just adored him. I had such admiration for the detailed-ness of his music and how every line in his music is melodic, from the tuba up to the top. He made gorgeous, genius-ly constructed music that was so unique.”

Her collaborator David Bowie: “He told me his first love was jazz. It’s pretty amazing that his last record (‘Blackstar’) would be a jazz record. There was a documentary on him recently and they failed to make that point. He went into music loving jazz and went out of it collaborating with jazz musicians.”

The allure of the accordion in her orchestra: “It opened up a world of space in my music. What is so phenomenal about the accordion in a big band is there is nobody else who can play high and sustained notes like that and also play soft. Maybe an orchestral flute player, but the flute has a shrill sound and you run out of breath. Maybe a trumpet with a mute, but the sound decays. It’s the same with piano and guitar, and a soprano (sax) is squirrely. An accordion can go way up above those tones, which is a struggle for other instruments.”

The longevity of her 30-year-old orchestra: “A band doesn’t last if the people in it aren’t happy. And a huge part of receiving respect is giving respect. A band can reflect the leader, so it’s important I exhibit those qualities.”

What she seeks in her band members: “Somebody with a beautiful sound and a love of improvising who loves to be a part of a sonic ensemble. Risk-takers who have a compositional sensibility, and a sense of melody and phrasing, who don’t just play for themselves. They also need to be great listeners. And I want nice, respectful people who are a joy to be with on the road.”


The Maria Schneider Orchestra

When: 6 p.m. next Sunday

Where: La Jolla Music Society’s Baker Baum Concert Hall at Conrad Prebys Performing Arts Center, 7600 Fay Avenue, La Jolla

Tickets: $41-$84

Phone: (858) 459-3728