The jazz orchestrations of Maria Schneider are the musical equivalent of soufflés from a master chef. Gently penetrating and remarkably resourceful, they yield textures that are often light and feathery, but inlaid with a piquant array of swirling flavors that she resolves in a smooth, clean aftertaste.
Not surprisingly, the woman who creates them is physically delicate and amiable, but possessed of an indomitable will to hear the music in her head transformed into song.
At a time when full-scale orchestras across the country are awash in red ink, Schneider is bringing her entire 18-piece ensemble Tuesday and Wednesday into the intimate Dakota Jazz Club in Minneapolis, where she attended the University of Minnesota after growing up in Windom, Minn.
The Dakota dates (and college gigs later this week in Stevens Point and Appleton, Wis.) are a prelude to a five-night engagement at the Jazz Standard in New York, four nights at the Blue Note in Tokyo and then a tour of Brazil.
Meanwhile, Schneider is enmeshed in another massive project: recording and preparing to release her chamber music collaborations with famed soprano Dawn Upshaw, performed with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra and the Australian Chamber Orchestra.
The SPCO did its part -- a song cycle based on poems by Brazil's Carlos Drummond de Andrade -- a month ago, before its lockout, when Schneider was here as guest conductor. The other half, set to poems by fellow Midwesterner Ted Kooser, was recorded last spring.
"It's been a huge part of my life the last couple of years, and now it is pretty terrifying," she said by phone from her home in New York. "I don't think anybody has ever tried to record major orchestras through fan funding over the Internet."
The art of the hustle
Then again, a dogged entrepreneurial desire has enabled Schneider to surmount barriers throughout her career. After moving to New York City in the 1980s, she scrimped together money by copying scores for big band leaders Gil Evans and Bob Brookmeyer to finance her own big band record, which she sold to the European label Enja in 1991 -- for a third of what it cost to make.
"But that record put me on the map in Europe where there are a lot of radio orchestras, so I was very grateful," she said. She also landed a weekly engagement at a Greenwich Village club that turned into a five-year stint, enabling her to found the Maria Schneider Jazz Orchestra and attract commissions from those radio orchestras overseas. "Even though the band lost money, it exposed what I do and allowed me to make money composing and conducting."
After three more records for Enja, she became a leader in using the new technology to retain control of her work, releasing her last three records on the crowd-funding website ArtistShare, a forerunner of Kickstarter. Her 2004 collection "Concert in the Garden" became the first Grammy-winning recording sold exclusively over the Internet.
Now she is underwriting her most ambitious endeavor to date, toting equipment and assembling materials to record two chamber orchestras at opposite ends of the globe. Fans can contact her by e-mail (MariaSchneider@me.com) to support the project by pre-ordering the record or making a donation in exchange for scores or personal discussions.
"We're constantly posting videos about our progress and offering tidbits" to stay connected with backers, she said.
Her band is like family
Concerned that the project was becoming a distraction, she has re-embraced her jazz orchestra, a motivation for the upcoming tour. She has a renewed appreciation for its versatility and idiosyncratic virtues.
After conducting and writing for strings, for example, she notes "it is much, much more difficult to get those warm, translucent sounds out of a big band of brass and woodwinds, and it makes me say, 'Wait a minute; how did I do that? And how did they do that?' But my music needs a lead trumpet player who has power but also grace, and bass trombone that can be fat and intense but also buoyant."
More than a few of the group's members headline their own bands, including saxophonists Donny McCaslin and Steve Wilson, pianist Frank Kimbrough, accordionist Gary Versace and drummer Clarence Penn.
"It is such a great band and they have been very loyal," she said. "And of course they have changed me and shaped me. I write something and they respond in a way I didn't expect that helps me think of something else.
"Probably the most common question I get is if I specifically write for people in the band. But how can you not do that? I equate it to conversation: You speak differently to your mother or your sister or your best friend or a business acquaintance because of the levels [on which] they know you. I write things I think they'll enjoy and that I think they can handle.
"At the same time, we avoid typecasting. We switch solos around for different people on different songs so we get to hear things that never occurred to me."
Which is precisely why, amid the side projects with divas and orchestras, Schneider remains a jazz musician, freelancing her life and her music as it comes.