Maria Schneider: A Boxful of Treasure

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Maria Schneider said of Decades, her new compilation release: ​“I just wanted to create something, put it in a beautiful box and say, ‘Look at what we did.‘”

(Photo: Briene Lermitte)

Maria Schneider opened the sleek black box and placed it on a coffee table in her Manhattan apartment. Inside lay the three vinyl LPs of Decades, her new compilation release, each record tucked into its own brightly colored jacket.

“I tried to pick things that were monumental from each year,” the celebrated large-ensemble bandleader and composer told DownBeat. Schneider described how she and graphic designer Cheri Dorr created the progressive timelines that grace the jacket covers — timelines that condense the 30 years of The Maria Schneider Orchestra into a series of photos, album covers, gigs and award icons. The accompanying booklet — packed with more photos, big names, personal anecdotes — provides insight into the band’s landmark moments.

A deliciously rich package, it only begins to tell the story of Schneider’s formidable contributions to jazz — as the leader of a premier jazz ensemble, certainly, but also as one of the foremost exemplars of independent musicianship.

When Schneider released her first big band album, Evanescence, on the German imprint Enja in 1994, a jazz artist’s best option for a recording career was label representation. Under the then-existing business paradigm, her recording contract was a win. She soon noted, however, that at the center of the record industry’s traditional business model was an unfortunate compromise: The most successful artists didn’t necessarily receive compensation commensurate with their contribution to the label’s profits.

“My records were expensive to make, and I was at the point where I was helping invest in the making of them. But I wasn’t seeing the profit, and they were selling really well,” she said. “You know — I get it. I forget what the exact number is, but something like one out of 12 record albums was profitable. So, of course [the record companies] have to make a lot of money on [that one] recording in order to pay for the 11 that are losing.”

The encroaching digital revolution of those years only made it harder for musicians to earn fair compensation, Schneider explained, as traditional labels struggled to find new ways of monetizing their catalogs in an internet-driven world. Today, under labels’ third-party distribution contracts with digital media, musicians make less via streaming than they did through in-person sales, and much of their music is given away for free.

Schneider readily understood the impact that further technological advancements would have on musicians’ livelihoods. After Evanescence, she released two more studio albums through Enja — Coming About (1996) and Allégresse (2000) — before swearing off traditional labels. She’d found another way to forge ahead toward a profitable career, she thought — if it worked.

Around 2000, Schneider began a partnership with Brian Camileo, founder of ArtistShare, as the first musician ever to produce an album via the newly hatched alternative-finance platform. Through Camileo’s crowdsourcing site — something that hadn’t existed before — Schneiders’ fans would participate directly in subsidizing her recording projects and receive not only the album, but other bonuses based on their level of sponsorship.

“I wanted to bet on myself, instead of being with a record company and [having them] invest in me and take the pot of gold if I do well,” Schneider said. “I was willing to take on my own risk, as opposed to having somebody take on the risk for me.”

Schneider’s partnership with ArtistShare would lead to several unprecedented career turns: Concert In The Garden, her inaugural release through the site in 2004, became the first online-only release to win a Grammy Award. Her next five ArtistShare albums earned her not only a half dozen Grammys and a finalist spot for a Pulitzer Prize, but the bulk of each album’s profits. And, most remarkably, she’s used the ArtistShare business model to fund her big band recordings for the past 20 years, even when the budget rose to almost a quarter of a million dollars (for Data Lords in 2020).

“What is really incredible is how this whole ArtistShare thing has endured for me,” she said. “It’s still strong. It’s still enabling me to do whatever I want to do.”

While it’s impossible to know how Schneider’s career would have unfolded had she proceeded with a traditional label, suffice it to say that she has built an unparalleled oeuvre without one. Unparalleled and important: Over the course of these last 30 years, she has managed to strike the optimal balance between creative freedom and financial innovation — and in the process crushed all notions of how a musician’s career is supposed to happen.

Faced with the task of curating her works for the new album, however, Schneider encountered unforeseen considerations beyond the historical heft of her catalog. Each track could run only 20 minutes before the audio quality would begin to deteriorate. The seven albums from which she’d culled the 12 selected tracks were recorded and engineered in different studios on varying equipment. And, technical problems aside, she wanted to honor her loyalists’ preferences, her own feelings about the compositions and the many exceptional musicians who had played with the band over the years.

The process “took me on a trip that I didn’t expect,” Schneider said. “It was almost like writing a biography. I really wanted to represent those periods. It is a pretty amazing thing: 30 years. And the band and my writing have morphed in different phases that I now recognize. In the moment, though, you don’t know the different forces that are changing your music.”

For the album’s initial track, Schneider chose “Hang Gliding” from Allégresse, her third studio album. This fantastical piece is her most popular, she reports — likely for the thrill of its swooping lines and insistent movement, so suggestive of cloud-bound flight. Released toward the end of Schneider’s first decade as a composer, the piece marks an epiphany in her writing.

“My first music was very earnest, and I love my first albums. But they’re intense,” she said. “I did have this idea that jazz had to be serious. And almost everything on Allégresse has dark tones. But then I [made my first trip to] Brazil and encountered this very sophisticated music that was full of joy and beauty, with tons of harmonic intricacy and masterful melodies. Just incredible rhythms. And I thought, I’m not going to be afraid of beauty and joy in my music.”

At the suggestion that her earlier pieces do convey a certain lightness, however, Schneider demurs. She rightly points to the compilation’s next three tracks, all of which predated “Hang Gliding” — the pensive “Gush” from Evanescence, with its clashing chords, ominous tensions and saxophonist Tim Reis’ plaintive improvisation. The title track from 1996’s Coming About, whose aching melodicism cycles through unsettling shifts in tempi and mood, underscored by the late Frank Kimbrough’s tensile piano soloing. The subdued action of “Some Circles,” also from Evanescence, against which tenorist Rich Perry extemporizes feelingly. Even so, as with the black box that houses the collection, within the shadow of these compositions something glistens.

“I like dark beauty. Not darkness just for intensity’s sake — there can be darkness in beauty,” Schneider said. “I don’t want my music to alienate people. That doesn’t mean that I’m trying to make my music simple. Music should have an inevitability, where you trust that the composer is going somewhere with an idea, and that when there are surprises, which there should be, you can go deeper in because you trust that it’s going to resolve.”

Entering her second decade with the band, Schneider again felt the stirrings of change. She’d become enamored with flamenco music, in all of its life-affirming drama, and wanted to write to that impulse. From this place she composed “Bulería, Soleá y Rumba” for Concert In The Garden, an 18-minute opus in three distinct sections and the fifth cut of the compilation. From the opening sequence in which the cajon delineates the bulería, through saxophonist Danny McCaslin’s ferocious extrapolation on the soleá, to Greg Gisbert’s deft flugelhorn reaching toward the apex of the rumba, it’s a breathless ride — and a magnificent bit of writing.

“I became prouder of it than any other piece I’ve written,” she said in the album booklet.

By the time Schneider released her next record, Sky Blue, just a few years later in 2007, her impetus for composing had shifted yet again. As she reveals in the compilation bio, the mid-2000s were a time of heavy personal loss, even as her band thrived. David Baker, who’d engineered Concert In The Garden, passed away just days after its release. Schneider was also grieving a close friend who’d died from a terminal illness, and she herself had recently faced down a medical crisis.

Written during that time, the compositions from Sky Blue brim with heartbreak. The first of two, “The Pretty Road” leans toward nostalgic reminiscences of Schneider’s youth in small-town Minnesota; the result is a complex anthem that spirals upward on trumpeter Ingrid Jensen’s extraordinary range as a soloist. The title track — inner-facing and lovely — pays tribute to Schneider’s lost friend, honored in Steve Wilson’s riveting display on soprano saxophone.

After Sky Blue, it would be another eight years before Schneider released an album with the band. She was anything but idle during this time, however. Two high-profile projects would introduce her talent to listeners outside of the jazz world: 2013’s Winter Morning Walks with opera singer Dawn Upshaw, which won three Grammys as a classical release, and 2014’s arrangement of pop icon David Bowie’s “Sue (Or In A Season of Crime),” which gave Schneider a Grammy for Best Arrangement, Instrumental and Vocals.

It was in 2014, though, that her artist’s voice found its widest audience with her Congressional testimony against music piracy. Within minutes of releasing Winter Morning Walks¸ she told a House subcommittee, this protected intellectual property was available on file-sharing websites for free — a violation that she described as “devastating.” She then suggested changes to standing anti-piracy legislation that would benefit content creators (10 years on, this digital-rights battle still persists.)

By the time of this testimony, Schneider was solidly into her third decade with the band, though spending more time in nature, away from composing. The peacefulness of these pastoral settings made its way into The Thompson Fields, from which she borrowed two selections for Decades. The first, “Walking By Flashlight,” is an instrumental rearrangement of a tune from the Upshaw collaboration and one of Schneider’s most serene melodies. The second, the 2015 album’s title cut, also builds on a soothing melodic construct, interrupted only intermittently by harmonic distress — whatever else might transpire, in the end, order prevails.

Her last compositions in the compilation carry a different message, however. Pulled from Data Lords, these works explore the dialectic between the natural world and the digital world, where order is disrupted by the ubiquity of technology. The whimsical “Stone Song,” with its glimpse into the composer’s sense of humor, stands in contrast with “Sputnik,” a sober ballad of large-scale motion and other-worldly imagery, and “Data Lords” itself, an exultant musical statement with menacing overtones and an implicit warning in its frenzy.

“My concern about big data really did become a center of my life,” Schneider said. “It was a pretty serious thing, and that came out in my music naturally. You start to realize that your music is like a barometer for your life.”

If so, Schneider isn’t quite sure how the weather will change now that Decades is launched. She’s working on new pieces, but they haven’t coalesced around a theme yet. Not that they have to; she’s certain that the music will reveal itself eventually and, at the same time, tell her what’s going on in her life. Meanwhile, the retrospective has afforded her the opportunity to appreciate the long-lasting bond that she’s shared with her band members — in person, face to face, across all that time.

“The biggest thing about this release — maybe it sounds kind of stupid — but it’s a love letter from me to everybody who’s ever been in the band. Hopefully, they value it as being an important part of their lives — socially, musically, everything,” she said. “I just wanted to create something, put it in a beautiful box and say, ‘Look at what we did. Treasure those years.’” DB



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