Maria Schneider on Her Hometown of Windom, Leading the Band and Working with David Bowie

By Espeland, Pamela | MinnPost.com, September 2, 2015 | Go to article overview

Maria Schneider on Her Hometown of Windom, Leading the Band and Working with David Bowie


Espeland, Pamela, MinnPost.com


In Maria Schneider's music, you hear wind on the prairies, and birdsong. You stand on a silo and look out at bean fields. You walk at night with a flashlight; "the moon on a leash," in poet Ted Kooser's words.

Born and raised in Windom in southwestern Minnesota, educated at the U and the Eastman School, Schneider is one of the top composers in jazz today, a three-time Grammy winner and leader of her own 18- piece, New York-based jazz orchestra for more than 25 years. Her latest album, "The Thompson Fields," released in June on the fan- funded ArtistShare label, is named for a neighbor's family farm in Windom.

Gorgeous, majestic, openly emotional, it embraces what she cherishes: nature, community, beauty for its own sake. It's being called her best work yet, and if you're at the Detroit Jazz Festival this weekend, a favorite of many Minnesota jazz lovers, you can hear much of it performed live on Saturday night.

We spoke by phone earlier this week. She was at home in New York, in the small Manhattan apartment where she has lived for 22 years.

MinnPost: You once said, "In first grade, I wanted to be an ornithologist, but then music took over." Early this year, you told Downbeat magazine, "In my next life, I might be an ornithologist -- if there are any birds left to enjoy." Why birds?

Maria Schneider: They were my window to connecting to nature. The song, the beauty, the sheer variety, the evolution, the feathers, the flight, the migration. ... You know when you look at the stars at night, or look at a planet through a telescope, the concepts are so huge. For me, birds are like that. They're born and develop in a matter of a few weeks, then they're off in the air, heading down to South America or somewhere else. It's crazy. It's unfathomable. It gives me the sense that there's something bigger out there. It makes you feel insignificant, and then it makes you feel significant because you're part of it, too.

MP: You've lived in New York for 30 years, yet much of your music is about your childhood home in Minnesota. Are you homesick?

MS: Not homesick, because I love it here, but I would say I'm nostalgic about home. They have a word in Brazil, "saudade," that means a kind of longing. A sweet longing, not a miserable longing. People sign letters "saudade," meaning "I miss you." I have that feeling about home. The people from my hometown - they're just such good stock.

[Windom] was a rich place to grow up. We had fabulous teachers and great families. We had a sense of community, the kind you don't get quite as much in a big city. It's like, "Oh, you're Carl Schneider's daughter. ... Oh, yeah, you turn left at the Mattson house, or go out until you hit the Fuller farm and then turn right for a while." That kind of referencing feels rooted, and when you grow up in a place like that, you don't lose those roots.

MP: "The Thompson Fields" is full of references to your hometown - the prairies, milkweed, your neighbor's farm, a tornado you watched with your mother. How did that album take shape?

MS: I've never set out to conceive an album. All of my albums are basically the music from [a period of my life]. If I feel like something's starting to coalesce into an album - if I see that certain pieces could work together - maybe I'll write one or two more to link everything up.

My first album ["Evanescence," 1994] was very earnest. First albums are often powerful, because they're the first creative expression people put out on the planet. After that, you become much more self-conscious. I struggled with psychological aspects when I did my second album ["Coming About," 1996].

In the middle of writing my third album ["Allegresse," 2000], I went to Brazil. I remember thinking the music on that album felt a little disjointed. What I didn't realize until years later was that Brazil changed my music. It brought much more joy, unabashed joy and beauty into my music.

When I was a classical [music] student at the University of Minnesota, there was this idea that tonality was passe and beauty is insipid. …

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