NEA Jazz Master Maria Schneider Takes on Big Tech in Her Music and Advocacy

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Maria Schneider, Pulitzer Prize nominee and NEA Jazz Master, is a renowned bandleader and advocate for artists' rights in the digital age.  (Briene Lermitte)

Think of Maria Schneider as a renegade botanist who’s spent more than three decades patiently cultivating a plant that bursts into spectacular bloom when placed in just the right environment.

A composer who often draws inspiration from the natural world, particularly the avian realm, she leads the Maria Schneider Orchestra, one of the era’s most subtle, resourceful and celebrated improvising ensembles. When transplanted to theaters and concert halls around the world, her 18-piece group produces a palette of luxuriantly lapidary textures unlike any other in the world.

Dormant for most of the past two years, Schneider’s orchestra arrives in the Bay Area for performances Saturday, March 26, at Stanford’s Bing Concert Hall and Sunday, March 27, at Sonoma State’s Green Music Center. The ensemble is fresh off of a revivifying run at New York City’s Birdland, “our first chance to play for a whole week since the pandemic,” she says, noting that the orchestra is still adjusting to the loss of pianist Frank Kimbrough, a 25-year member “and a foundation of the band.”

Kimbrough’s unexpected death in 2020 led to the orchestra’s accordion player, Gary Versace, switching to piano, while Schneider brought in French-born Julien Labro, a master of jazz, tango and classical music, as a new accordionist. Keeping the piano chair in the family, she knows that Versace is deeply versed in the band’s aesthetic, “listening, risk taking and supporting one another, allowing the music to change in the moment and respecting the composition,” Schneider says.

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Schneider received an NEA Jazz Masters fellowship in 2019 at the age of 58, making her one of the youngest artists ever to receive the nation’s top jazz honor. She got her start apprenticing with Bob Brookmeyer and Gil Evans (who gained fame in the 1950s for a series of landmark orchestral collaborations with Miles Davis, including 1957’s Miles Ahead and 1959’s Porgy & Bess). She’s racked up seven Grammy Awards, including two for the orchestra’s latest album, 2020’s Data Lords, which 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 take over from Clarence Penn, “who left so much space and changed my writing in such a beautiful way,” Schneider says. “Johnathan came in with such a different energy, and I’m still finding out what that’s doing to my sound. Drums change the whole trajectory.”

While Schneider doesn’t often explicitly evoke Duke Ellington, she is the maestro’s most direct descendent on the contemporary scene in the way she writes specifically for her orchestra’s idiosyncratic musical personalities. Guitarist Ben Monder (a recent addition to The Bad Plus), trumpeter Greg Gisbert and tenor saxophonist Donny McCaslin (who gained widespread notice outside of jazz for his work on David Bowie’s valedictory album Blackstar) are a some of the singular improvisers who have spent decades playing Schneider’s music.

Multi-instrumentalist Scott Robinson, who’s been with Schneider from the very beginning, has gained further renown in recent years as a magisterial tenor saxophonist. But he’s essential to the orchestra’s rich tonality via his work on baritone sax. It’s a role reminiscent of Harry Carney, whose bari anchored the Ellington Orchestra for 47 years.

In the same way that the Ellington sound is unimaginable without Carney,  Robinson defines the shading and contours of Schneider’s music, “which is all about sound and shape,” says Robinson, who also leads 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 everything belongs in the music at that moment in time. It’s like a landscape, and everything sits in the music like it just grew there.”

If nature often serves as the protagonist in her soundscapes, technology’s baleful impact on the music scene has increasingly come into focus as Schneider’s antagonist. Over the past decade she’s been one of the boldest voices in music challenging the business practices of streaming services, testifying before Congress, writing essays and even filing a class action lawsuit against YouTube for not protecting the copyrights of indie artists. She wouldn’t comment directly on the suit’s status, but Schneider argued that exploitation of musicians was foundational to the internet’s rise.

“We were being used to get the eyeballs,” she says. “We’re still one of the biggest draws to get people onto the internet. And nobody wanted to be hindered by respecting our property. That would ruin their party.”

“Our Natural World,” the second disc of her double album Data Lords, fully captures the way her music flows from her reverence for the biosphere. The cycle culminates with “Bluebird,” an 11-minute piece featuring Versace’s accordion and Steve Wilson’s alto sax gliding, swooping and soaring through pillowy gusts of brass.

In contrast, with its eerie electronic effects, the album’s first disc, “The Digital World,” explores the damage done by the technology, and not just to the bottom line of musicians.

While her orchestra can fill a venue with waves of sound so palpable it feels like an immersive environment, Schneider worries that our attention is being strip mined by algorithms. Strange as it might sound from an artist known for providing singular thrills, she’s worried we’re losing our capacity for boredom.

“Just like tobacco companies, these tech companies make things that are addictive,” she says. “In the end, the thing that’s sad about it is that the internet has so much potential. But the way it’s evolved, at the core it’s about making money from the data. And to get the data they keep us glued to their services sucking our souls, manipulating us so we keep giving them our data, which they use to keep us engaged. It’s a scary loop.”

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Fortunately, Schneider has an antidote for the tech that ails us, medicine that she’s grown at home.