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Jazz composer Maria Schneider jumps into classical world and emerges with Grammy nods

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NEW YORK, N.Y. - Jazz composer Maria Schneider feels "absolutely giddy" to find herself in new company at the Grammy Awards with her first contemporary classical CD, "Winter Morning Walks" featuring soprano Dawn Upshaw.

Over the past 20 years, Schneider has built a reputation as a leading jazz composer, arranger and big band leader. Her last two CDs won Grammys — "Concert in the Garden" for large jazz ensemble recording and "Sky Blue" for instrumental composition ("Cerulean Skies").

Her achievement is even more remarkable because she was the first artist to win a Grammy for a web-exclusive recording in 2004, using the fan-funding ArtistShare platform.

Her new CD — one of the first fan-funded projects to feature major orchestras — so far has covered nearly half its $200,000 budget from donations ranging up to $10,000 for an executive producer credit.

"Winter Morning Walks," a song cycle based on the poetry of Pulitzer Prize-winner Ted Kooser, has three nominations, including best contemporary classical composition, best classical vocal solo (Upshaw) and best engineered classical album.

Schneider, 53, finds herself nominated alongside such heavyweight contemporary composers as Arvo Part, Esa-Pekka Salonen, Magnus Lindberg as well as Caroline Shaw, whose "Partita for 8 Voices" won the Pulitzer Prize.

"It's such a thrill to be in that company," said Schneider, interviewed at her one-bedroom apartment on Manhattan's Upper West Side. "It's like I jumped into a whole other fish tank."

The seed for the recording was planted in 2004 when Argentine composer Osvaldo Golijov gave Upshaw a copy of "Concert in the Garden." Upshaw instantly connected with the music and began attending Schneider's annual Thanksgiving week gig at the Jazz Standard club.

"I was fascinated with the way she wrote," Upshaw said. "Her music was bursting with real unabashed joy, nothing artificial."

Upshaw, a four-time Grammy winner, eventually came up with "this wild idea" of asking Schneider to compose something for her.

Schneider had not done anything with classical music since college in the early '80s when she felt "terrified" by the classical world's emphasis on atonal music and switched to jazz.

She was reluctant at first to accept Upshaw's commission because it involved things she had never done before — write for a classical vocalist and chamber orchestra and compose music to lyrics — but decided she needed "to take risks and try new things."

Schneider found it easier to work with an open-minded singer like Upshaw, who is comfortable with everything from singing Mozart at the Met to performing contemporary compositions by Henryk Gorecki and Golijov.

"Dawn doesn't feel like a singer with a manufactured sound and presence. When Dawn sings a lyric it feels so real and from the heart," said Schneider.

Schneider felt the Brazilian influences in her jazz writing would provide "a stepping stone" into the classical world. She wrote "Carlos Drummond de Andrade Stories," based on the works of one of Brazil's leading poets, which was premiered by Upshaw and the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra in 2008 and also appears on the new CD.

For the "Winter Morning Walks" song cycle, Schneider decided to bring Upshaw more into her world by having three improvising musicians — pianist Frank Kimbrough, bassist Jay Anderson and clarinetist Scott Robinson, who have been with her jazz orchestra since its 1992 start — perform with the Australian Chamber Orchestra at the 2011 premiere and on the recording.

Schneider and Upshaw, both breast cancer survivors, felt an immediate personal connection with Kooser's poems, which he wrote on pre-dawn walks in the Nebraska countryside while recovering from cancer surgery and radiation therapy. Schneider found the images also evoked memories of the landscapes around her hometown in southwestern Minnesota that have influenced her jazz compositions.

"I think there's something when you encounter your mortality," said Schneider, an avid bird watcher. "It's a shocking moment that wakes up the colours and the power of beauty and nature just explode in a way they don't normally. You become so appreciative of the smallest, most beautiful things."

Schneider says she couldn't sleep when she sent the finished recording to Kooser, but was relieved when he enthusiastically endorsed her effort.

"He said he felt he could experience the poetry with the music, and it just made me really happy," said Schneider. "That to me is better than any Grammy Award."




Follow Charles J. Gans at

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