Maria Schneider featuring Dawn Upshaw: Winter Morning Walks

Maria Schneider's Winter Morning Walks was honoured with three 2104 Grammy awards, “Best Contemporary Classical Composition,” “Best Classical Vocal Solo,” and “Best Engineered Album, Classical,” which would seem to settle any questions about where to find it in the record store. And obviously the presence of the celebrated soprano Dawn Upshaw on the recording strengthens the impression of it as a classical work. But as jazz aficionados well know, Schneider recordings such as Coming About and Allegresse are more likely to be found in the jazz department rather than alongside Sibelius and Stravinsky.

With Concert in the Garden (2004) and Sky Blue (2007) both having been chosen as “Jazz Album of the Year” by the Jazz Journalists Association and in the Downbeat Critics Poll, the New York-based and Minnesota-born composer-conductor has clearly come a long way since she first began writing for her seventeen-member collective. To say that her music blurs the lines between jazz and classical is no exaggeration, as her extensive list of commissions includes works created for the Monterey Jazz Festival, the American Dance Festival, and Jazz at Lincoln Center, but also for the Kronos Quartet, the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, and the Australian Chamber Orchestra, the latter two of which appear on Schneider's latest recording.

Both compositions on Winter Morning Walks are wondrous creations, and while their combination makes for a cohesive album, there are differences between them that go beyond instrumentation and personnel. Winter Morning Walks, which features poetry by Pulitzer Prize winner and Poet Laureate of the United States (2004-06) Ted Kooser, is made up of nine distinct settings markedly contrasting in tone and style; the five parts that make up Carlos Drummond de Andrade Stories, on the other hand, largely follow one another without interruption, and the material's dreamlike character is strengthened as a result.

The texts featured in Winter Morning Walks are drawn from a book of the same name by Kooser, who composed its pieces during a time when he was recovering from cancer treatment and taking a two-mile walk each morning. Much of the text content concerns the intimate experience of being outdoors in different seasons and times of day, and to her credit Schneider has managed to translate the soul-nourishing stillness of the natural world into lyrical compositions of understated grandeur (hear, for example, how perfectly her sinuous writing matches the image of the married couple “braided together in sleep” in “All Night, in Gusty Winds”). One comes away from the piece sensitive to the appreciation Kooster feels for the country setting and the gratitude he expresses in being able to immerse himself within it.

Though Schneider has the full resources of the Australian Chamber Orchestra at her disposal, the arrangements are anything but ornate. Instead, she presents the songs as chamber-styled meditations where Upshaw's pure voice, strings, and woodwinds predominate, and where an occasional soloist lends the material an orchestral jazz feel. The playing of clarinetist Scott Robinson, bassist Jay Anderson, and pianist Frank Kimbrough establishes a bridge between the classical world of the orchestra and the jazz stylings of Schneider's own group. The vocalizing of Upshaw, still arguably best known for her celebrated performance on the landmark 1992 recording of Gorecki's Symphony No. 3, is as exquisite as ever. The soloists' playing is beautiful, too—consider Robinson's stirring contributions to “How Important It Must Be” a representative example.

The recording's second work sees Upshaw singing texts by Brazilian poet Carlos Drummond de Adrade (1902-87) backed by the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra. With Schneider's own musicians absent, the instrumental colour is orchestrally purer in this second setting, and an overall darker, even tragic tone, reflective of the poems' content, seeps into the writing. Faint echoes of Villa-Lobos's Bachianas Brasileiras (the well-known fifth, specifically) haunt the “Prologue,” especially in those passages where Upshaw contributes wordless singing, and during one woodwinds-heavy sequence, one pictures Gil Evans listening from above with a smile on his face (interestingly, Schneider was, many moons ago, Evans' musical assistant for three years). In addition, the noir-esque “The Dead in Frock Coats” and “Don't Kill Yourself” call to mind Raymond Chandler's Farewell My Lovely and Astor Piazzolla, among other things. Despite there being key differences between the recording's two works, the pastoral imagery and hopeful tone of the second's “Souvenir of the Ancient World” draw a firm connecting line from de Adrade to Kooster.

Winter Morning Walks is such an accomplished work, it's hard to imagine what Schneider will do to follow it up. But until the time arrives when her reply to that daunting challenge is revealed, one could do worse than spend time luxuriating in the refined artistry of this special collaborative achievement.

February 2014