Photo by Jan PerssonWhen fledgling composer/arranger Maria Schneider arrived in New York in 1985, fresh out of Windom, Minnesota, she immediately started looking for longtime Miles Davis associate Gil Evans, the arranger of such Davis classics as Sketches of Spainand Miles Ahead, among others. All the quality jazz know-it-alls will tell you Evans was the best of Davis' arrangers, and Maria Schneider wanted to study only with the best. Under his tutelage, she would work on the score for Martin Scorcese's The Color of Money and assist with arrangements Evans did for Sting's 1987 European tour. And when Evans died in 1988, she dedicated her first recording (Evanescence on Enja) to him. It would win her the first of three Grammy nominations—naturally, she had learned her lessons well.
"I don't care when somebody says my music sounds like Gil's," she says. "Little bits of this and that were inspired by Gil. But the main difference is that Gil orchestrated other composers' music. I like to write my own."
In a phone conversation last month from San Francisco, where she was conducting the classic Evans-Davis arrangement of Porgy and Bess, Schneider says her association with Evans was definitely a defining period in her life. But she stresses that her own path—most recently heard on the Enja release Allegrese—leads somewhere else. That was the most important thing Evans taught her, she says: how to find her own voice.
"That was his strongest influence: to acknowledge and respect my own relationship to music," she says. "There was so much of his personality in his music. He was completely dedicated to his own voice, his own creative vision."
The thing that first attracted her to Evans' sound was its differences from traditional big band, she says.
"He favored a much more transparent kind of sonic texture, one with more an orchestral quality than a big band, with woodwinds and mutes on the brass," he says. "If he hadn't attracted me with that sound, I don't think I would have ever stepped into the drama of big-band music."
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She took Evans' iconoclasm and applied it to her own orchestra every Monday night at Visiones in Greenwich Village, a string of appearances in the early '90s that established her as a unique voice in jazz composition. ("I enjoy mixing two or three instruments so you have no idea which instrument is actually playing," she says.) The music seldom followed the usual jazz form of theme and improvisation—instead, it was a huge aural tapestry, from behind which soloists would step forth for extended explorations, stitched together from influences that range far beyond Gil Evans.
There were her lessons with jazz arranger/trombonist Bob Brookmeyer, as well as the recordings of composer/bandleaders George Russell, Duke Ellington and Thad Jones—not to mention Ravel, Hindemith and Stravinsky. "I like anyone who composes with a lot of personality," she says.
And then there's the more outr influences—at least by jazz-arrangement standards. "When I was young, I did ballet, tap and figure skating," says Schneider. "One of the things that inspired me to be a composer was that the American Ballet came to Minnesota and performed Bernstein's 'Fancy Free.' There was music and people leaping through the air—the music and dance were coming together. And I thought I'd just love to write music that made people fly through air."
The Maria Schneider Jazz Orchestra plays Founders Hall, Orange County Performing Arts Center, 600 Town Center Dr., Costa Mesa, (714) 556-2787; www.ocpac.org. Fri.-Sat., 7:30 & 9:30 p.m. $49-$39.