Grammy-winning composer Maria Schneider to lead the Whitworth Jazz Ensemble at Fox

When Maria Schneider burst onto the jazz scene nearly a quarter century ago, “they called her the new Duke Ellington,” said Dan Keberle, director of Whitworth Jazz Studies.

“And she really is – she writes music that is totally hers,” he said. “It’s steeped in the traditions of jazz, but it’s unlike anyone who’s ever come before it…especially for a big band.”

Celebrating the 33rd annual Whitworth Guest Artists Jazz Concert, Schneider will join the Whitworth Jazz Ensemble for a two-part concert at Fox’s Martin Woldson Theater at 8 p.m. Saturday.

Keberle will lead the first half, featuring several classics from Ellington and other jazz greats, as well as two original compositions by Whitworth senior Kai Wagner.

“We’ve always had students composing, but no one at (Wagner’s) level,” Keberle said. “One of the reasons the jazz program at Whitworth is so great is that we get these students who really know how to improvise, who can really tell a story when they play.

“It’s different every time, and it’s very exciting, very communicative for the public.”

The second half of the program will feature Schneider as composer and conductor. Keberle, who is retiring at the end of the year, will take on the featured trumpet solo in Schneider’s “Walking by Flashlight.”

“It will be a very interesting second half,” Keberle said. “People will come away amazed by the contrast.” The first half, grounded in jazz standards, blues and some “great solo work” by the students, highlights Schneider’s innovation throughout the second.

“Her set will really take her to a whole new level of sound and form – even just the choice of harmonies – in every way it’s a different kind of sound,” he said. “We are so thrilled to have an artist of her stature come to be a part of student life and this concert.”

This will be the first direct collaboration between Keberle and Schneider, but the two have known each other for years. Keberle’s son Ryan, a trombonist, played with Schneider for nearly 15 years in his jazz band.

Delighted to be back on stage after so many months, Schneider is particularly eager to work with student performers again. In addition to working with students as a conductor, Schneider will participate in several clinics and question-and-answer sessions during his visit to campus.

“There is a special energy when students go a little beyond themselves,” she said. “It’s not easy music.”

Students often feel like they’re being pushed beyond what they might normally be able to do, she explained.

“They’re reaching, putting their strongest intentions into the music…so hearing their surprise at seeing themselves doing what they did is really, really soulful,” she said.

Getting back on stage was “a breath of fresh air,” Keberle said.

“I think everyone is enjoying making music together again,” Schneider said. “It’s very emotional – to be able to make music – you don’t take it for granted anymore.”

Going to a live broadcast concert is one thing. Coming back to a theater with a crowd of flesh-and-blood listeners is quite another.

“Over the years, I’ve really realized that the audience is such an important part of music that when I do gigs, I always tell the lighting guys to make sure the audience is at least a little turned on,” said she declared.

When all you can see is an ocean of darkness, you almost feel like you’re performing to yourself, and that’s not the energy you want in a performance, she explained.

“We play better when we can see their faces,” she said. “And right now the public is just craving it – it’s really fun.”

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