NEA Jazz Master Maria Schneider takes on Big Tech in her music and advocacy

Schneider received an NEA Jazz Masters scholarship in 2019 at the age of 58, making her one of the youngest artists to receive the nation’s highest jazz honor. She began her apprenticeship with Bob Brookmeyer and Gil Evans (who rose to prominence in the 1950s for a series of landmark orchestral collaborations with Miles Davis, including 1957’s miles ahead and 1959 Porgy & Bess). She has racked up seven Grammy Awards, including two for the orchestra’s latest album, 2020 Data Lordswhich was also a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize and album of the year in the NPR Music Jazz Critics Poll.

Several key members have been in the ranks since the orchestra was a seedling, though Schneider isn’t averse to making major changes, like bringing in drummer Johnathan Blake to succeed Clarence Penn, “who left so many space and changed my songwriting in such a beautiful way,” says Schneider. “Johnathan came in with such a different energy, and I’m still figuring out what that does to my sound. The drums change the whole trajectory.

Although Schneider does not often explicitly refer to Duke Ellington, she is the maestro’s most direct descendant on the contemporary stage in the way she writes specifically for the idiosyncratic musical personalities of her orchestra. Guitarist Ben Monder (a recent addition to The Bad Plus), trumpeter Greg Gisbert and tenor saxophonist Donny McCaslin (who rose to prominence outside of jazz for his work on David Bowie’s farewell album Black Star) are among the singular improvisers who have spent decades playing Schneider’s music.

Multi-instrumentalist Scott Robinson, who has been with Schneider since the very beginning, has made a name for himself in recent years as a masterful tenor saxophonist. But he is essential to the rich tone of the orchestra through his work on the baritone sax. It’s a role reminiscent of Harry Carney, whose bari anchored the Ellington Orchestra for 47 years.

In the same way Ellington’s sound is unimaginable without Carney, Robinson defines the nuances and contours of Schneider’s music, “which is all about sound and form,” says Robinson, who also conducts his own quartet with piano star Helen Sung at Yoshi’s on March 29.

“You have to shape everything. You can never just play the notes,” he explains. “She demands that everything be shaped and sculpted so that everything belongs to the music at that precise moment. It’s like a landscape, and everything is in the music as if it just grew there.

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