As I sit in the third row of the O’Shaughnessy auditorium, the concert is about at its conclusion and the orchestra prepares to play one of my favorite compositions from The Thompson Fields, “Arbiters of Evolution.” Introducing the work, Maria Schneider is both teaching us about and gesticulating the mating dance of Papua New Guinea’s birds-of-paradise. Inspirations for this piece, Schneider describes the rarity of each bird and its unique palette of colors, design, and patterns, and it’s in this description and the subsequent performance, that it dawns on me why myself and so many others are sitting in this theater.
Yes, Maria Schneider’s music is distinctly beautiful and fits so well with our own images and memories of Minnesota prairies, landscapes, and ethos. So we feel a connection to her and her music that we don’t feel with many other composers and artists. And she has surrounded herself with immensely talented artists and musicians, a handful of whom have stuck with her for decades.
We also love that she’s a hometown girl, seen by the fact that half the audience claimed to have travelled from Windom for the show. But what exactly do we love most about her and how she hails from our own communities?
Her voice is both strongly authentic and unique, and audiences feel that both through her music and in her persona.
Part of her authenticity is felt in the way she writes for members of the orchestra – she knows what each musician brings to the ensemble, what their strengths are, and what their musical opinions, ideas, and contributions will be. “Arbiters of Evolution” was a case in point example. Tenor saxophonist Donny McCaslin lead the chart off with his solo and baritone saxophone Scott Robinson following, both working toward a cacophonous and wild combined improvisation that erupted and fell away into bird sounds. Listening to both the recorded album and this performance – these two were written into the tune.
The use of natural imagery within her compositions is not only unique, but it brings the listener there in authentic way. She goes all in with this imagery – and you can hear intentionality for each piece and every component of a piece. My first exposure to her work was what I referred to as “the bird song,” with was “Cerulean Skies.” Then it was “Hang Gliding” and “The ‘Pretty’ Road,” each piece indicative of a place and time that I can picture myself in. While not all composers strive for such focused and detailed imagery, it’s what we see as Maria’s signature. There can be a greater sense of connection because she’s showing or telling us about this place or feeling she has written into song.
Even in the introduction to the piece at Thursday’s concert, the way she captured the bird and its rituals through the explanation and somewhat goofy gestures and movements displays this authenticity in her writing.
Additionally, while her orchestra is reminiscent of the big band model that is a staple of the jazz genre and its history, of course her composition and building of that orchestra is unique. For one, the accordion is an essential member of both the rhythm section as well as a melodic, soloing voice. Looking in the first row, you also see the saxophone section is surrounded by both your standard and unconventional doubling woodwinds – all kinds of clarinets and flutes, which is characteristic of her textures and sounds. Within the orchestra, the roles of each section also get changed up and redefined from that of the big band model.
Without trying to be cheeky, the unique displays of different birds-of-paradise represent so many things about her work: the musicians within it, her individual sense of voice and texture, and the owning of this uniqueness.
But with all of these aspects of her work, we do not get the sense that she writes uniquely for the sake of being unique. She writes what is in and on, her mind. Her authenticity rings within us, particularly as Midwesterners, so it feels more significant than purely “listening to jazz.” More like “listening to Maria.”
Don’t forget – Maria will be back in town with JazzMN Orchestra on April 8th. Ticket information at jazzmn.org.
Twin Cities Jazz Bio
Avid jazz listener and Twin Cities arts goer, Anna Buchholz works on the social media and marketing team for Twin Cities Jazz Festival as well as in event planning at Arts Midwest in Minneapolis. A Lawrence University alum, Anna studied jazz and classical saxophone and English in Appleton, Wisc. You will find her listening to the work of Maria Schneider, Fred Sturm, and Prairie Home Companion with Chris Thile.