"I dance all the time. When I'm sitting down, I get trapped in an idea and lose perspective - but when I dance, my body tells me how my compositions should develop," says jazz composer Maria Schneider in a recent phone conversation from Manhattan about her new recording.
If the image of a perpetually dancing composer flies in the face of stereotypes, Schneider's art shatters many more conventional images.
With the recent release of "Allegresse," her third album on the Enja label, Schneider has earned a place of honor among the jazz composers of our time. She has been nominated twice for a Grammy, she composed a major piece ("El Viento") for Carnegie Hall in 1994, and attracted loyal listeners at a popular Manhattan jazz club in the 1990s. She also has one of the most dynamic voices in jazz.
Raised in the small town of Windom, Minn., she moved to New York in 1985 to study jazz composition. Four years later, she formed her own orchestra, with some top New York musicians.
Schneider downplays the fact that she is a woman artist in a field dominated by men. "Being a woman artist, I have a certain freedom," she says. "I'm not compared to anybody. I have freedom to exercise my quirky ways."
What she identifies as her "quirky ways" surfaces quickly when you listen to "Allegresse." There are six original, long compositions performed by her 19-piece orchestra, a group she has miraculously held together for more than a decade, a tough feat, given the harsh economic realities of the jazz business. In an astonishing fashion, Schneider melds classical music and jazz with stirring grace and sophistication.
"I've always been interested in music that's more than song, other than typical theme and variations, which jazz mostly is," she says.
Soaring orchestral textures and colors are underscored by her lush arrangements, using instruments not commonly identified with big band jazz, like the oboe and English horn. "I'm trying to take my listeners on a trip from beginning to end, so every soloist in my compositions becomes like an actor in a play who carries you to unexpected places," Schneider explains.
"Hang Gliding," the opening composition on "Allegresse," is an exquisite example of how the composer takes her listeners on a rich journey. Inspired by her first experience hang gliding during a visit to Brazil, Schneider (who describes herself as a marginal "jazz" instrumentalist and thinks of her orchestra as her instrument of choice) conducts the orchestra in the 13-minute piece, which soars dynamically with expansive energy.
Fiery improvised solos by Rick Margitza on tenor saxophone and Greg Gisbert on flugelhorn suggest the physical dare-devil acrobatics identified with the sport.
"I want my listeners to have a physical response to my music," Schneider says.
The album's centerpiece covers different emotional terrain: cherished relationships gone awry. In spite of its somber subject matter, Schneider describes the creation of the 20-minute "Dissolution," with enthusiasm.
"It was a really great experience working on this piece, a dance piece created with the Pilobolus Dance Company. The dancers in the group would improvise to little ideas, little phrases I'd play for them on piano, explaining how I intended to orchestrate them.
"They would start improvising dances to my ideas while three choreographers would make suggestions on how the dancers could develop their moves. So as I watched the dancers improvise on my ideas, then I would start improvising myself. The final recorded work is the result of our interaction. It fits my vision of music: that it's a kind of spatial sculpture communicating between people."
The pensive and moving work "Nocturne" is inspired by the memory of her mother playing Chopin's "Nocturnes" while reflecting on her youthful romances.
Schneider is that rare composer capable of summoning the spirit of dance in symphonic and jazzy grandeur.
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