Maria Schneider’s Lush, Atmospheric Winter Morning Walks: Beauty Triumphs Over Horror
If there’s one thing that defines Maria Schneider‘s work, it’s color. So why would this era’s most dynamic composer in any style of music want to make a monochromatic album? Maybe because it was a challenge. Although Schneider’s big band jazz can be lush and enveloping to the nth degree, writing for string orchestra as she does here gives her a chance to build lingering long-tone themes that would be less suited to the reeds and brass of her jazz orchestra. Both suites on her most recent, death-obsessed album Winter Morning Walks are sung by Dawn Upshaw, an apt choice of vocalist considering that she’s as at home in both the avant garde and in jazz – notably in her collaborations with Wynton Marsalis – as she is in the classical world.
The first suite is orchestrations of poems by Ted Kooser, which debuted on NPR and document his predawn strolls while battling through chemotherapy (which he happily survived). The second is Schneider’s orchestral scores of text by iconic Brazilian poet Carlos Drummond de Andrade. The music of both is remarkably cohesive, and pretty much through-composed in keeping with the uneven meters of the poems: there’s very little repetition here. Upshaw is backed by the Australian Chamber Orchestra on the first and on the second by the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra along with core members of the Maria Schneider Orchestra: pianist Frank Kimbrough, bassist Jay Anderson and multi-reedman Scott Robinson on alto and bass clarinet.
Music inspired by impending doom has seldom been more gorgeous. An aptly drifting tone poem opens the initial suite, Upshaw’s clipped vocals growing more agitated against scurrying strings which then drive the music to a lull. Kimbrough’s steady, minimalist piano pairs with Robinson’s optimistic clarinet, then Upshaw delivers a mantra of sorts over a theme that grows uneasy despite the lushness underneath. A tender piano/strings interlude illustrates the point where Kooser’s wife joins him on one of his excursions. A calmly pulsing after-the-storm tableau gets followed by the menacing miniature Our Finch Feeder, with echoes of circus rock and noir cabaret, then a hopeful, crescendoing interlude. Nebulous, balmy orchestration gives way to a big bravura vocal crescendo on the final segment.
The de Andrade suite is more in the vein of Schneider’s extraordinarily vivid large ensemble jazz. The opening prologue sounds like an Ernesto Lecuona piece with lusher strings and English vocals – it gets creepier as it trails out. The Dead in Frock Coats, a plaintive, cello-fueled waltz in disguise, comes next, followed by the minimalist lullaby Souvenir of the Ancient World. The best song on the album, the absolutely chilling, majestically menacing Don’t Kill Yourself, blends hints of Arabic music with vintage Gil Evans Out of the Cool noir (which makes sense since Schneider was Evans’ greatest protegee). The album ends with an ominously throbbing vamp concealed in a cloud of strings. This is an album best enjoyed on your phone or your pod or your earphones – it’s best heard up close where Schneider’s intricacies can draw you into a reverie and then jar you out of it when least expected.
Now where else can you hear this album? Not at Spotify, or Instantencore (the classical counterpart to Bandcamp). Not at Schneider’s Youtube channel. However, Schneider streams much of her catalog at her site: you can get absolutely lost in the amazing stuff that’s up there.