Coming to Ojai--jazz composer Maria Schneider

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Jazz composer Maria Schneider lives in the kind of small New York City apartment that you can’t imagine her ever leaving. It’s old and warm and crammed with beloved books and things of a life imaginatively lived, notably, of course, an upright piano, covered just now with scores.

On this spring morning, the western sun pours over a cracked window sill and a medley of unruly house plants, illuminating a series of fantastically strange gothic paintings of vaguely identifiable Midwestern icons like grain elevators and farm machinery, done by Schneider’s sister Kate. ‘Aren’t they bleak?’ Schneider says with a huge smile.

Schneider, diminutive and ebullient as a dance-hall pianist, eschews a venerable chair and sits on her dark wood floor and lovingly recites by heart a poem by Ted Kooser. It goes like this:

Walking by flashlight


at six in the morning,

my circle of light on the gravel

swinging side to side,

coyote, raccoon, field mouse, sparrow,

each watching from darkness

this man with the moon on a leash.

‘Isn’t that beautiful?’ she asks. Schneider has composed for and conducted her own jazz orchestra, mostly in New York clubs, for 15 years. (The Maria Schneider Orchestra has recorded six albums; its fifth, the Brazilian-spiced ‘Concert in the Garden,’ won a Grammy Award.) Most recently she has excitedly written an orchestral work, ‘Winter Morning Walks,’ for soprano Dawn Upshaw and the Australian Chamber Orchestra, based on a Kooser book of poems by the same name. The work will premiere June 12 at the Ojai Music Festival.

Schneider, 50, explains that she loves Kooser’s poetry because it taps her deepest feelings for the rural Midwest where she and Kooser are from. She’s lived in New York for more than two decades but whenever she returns home to the prairie lands of Windom, Minn., she’s overwhelmed.

‘That’s because of an openness and a really intense beauty that is very subtle and simple,’ she says. ‘It doesn’t come in dramatic mountains and waterfalls, it comes in the light in the sky, in the clouds, in the colors of the low sun on the grain, on the corn, it comes in the birds, it comes in the little things. Ted’s poems capture that. I think my music has that. It has that broad openness with an accessible, simple beauty to it.’

Composing ‘Winter Morning Walks,’ Schneider says, came easily to her. ‘Normally I am sitting here in a mass of stress,’ she says, laughing. ‘But I had so much fun writing this music for Dawn.’ She was also swept into an emotional riptide. Kooser wrote ‘Winter Morning Walks’ while being treated for cancer and Schneider was composing her version while her father, an engineer in the paper industry, was dying. ‘I would read him the poems and he really loved them,’ she says.

Schneider continues to explain why accessible music means the world to her. ‘I met Wayne Shorter once and he said that Miles Davis loved music that didn’t sound like music,’ she says. ‘It’s a great quote. You have to find the thing in the music that makes it a conduit. That’s why I’m not interested in writing complex music. I don’t want people to be sitting there, analyzing, saying, ‘Wow, that’s cool-sounding, that’s neat.’ I want people at the end to be like ‘Wow, what just happened? That took me somewhere.’ I want people to get the spirit-body of the music. I’m looking for something that goes way beyond the music.’ She smiles and pauses. ‘Well, that’s the wish, anyway.’

For a profile of Dawn Upshaw and her plans for the festival, click here.

-- Kevin Berger