By Andrew Gilbert
If I were a gambling man, I’d put all my money on Maria Schneider. Over the past two decades, the composer and arranger has defied the longest odds, thriving as the leader of a 21-piece jazz orchestra stocked with a vivid cross-section of New York’s most inventive musicians.
The Maria Schneider Orchestra performs at Zellerbach Hall on Monday as part of the Cal Performances series Ojai North! (Dawn Upshaw and the Australian Chamber Orchestra include the Bay Area premiere of a Schneider piece jointly commissioned by Ojai, Cal Perfs and the ACO on Tuesday’s Zellerbach program).
A protégé of legendary arranger and Miles Davis collaborator Gil Evans (“Birth of the Cool” “Miles Ahead” “Porgy and Bess”), Schneider launched her orchestra in 1993 and released her acclaimed debut album the following year “Evanescence” (Enja). Featuring nine original compositions, the album introduced her dense, often dauntingly intricate style. Over the years she’s given her ravishing melodic sensibility more space to develop, while providing bandmembers with career-defining material to explore.
A digital pioneer, she won a Grammy Award for her 2004 album “Concert In the Garden” (ArtistShare), the first time NARAS honored an album available only via the Internet.
For Tuesday’s premiere, Upshaw and the Australian Chamber Orchestra are joined by two longtime Schneider collaborators, pianist Frank Kimbrough, and multi-instrumentalist Scott Robinson. The libretto is drawn from poems by poet laureate and Pulitzer Prize winner Ted Kooser’s book ”Winter Morning Walks.”
Andrew Gilbert lives in west Berkeley and covers music and dance for the San Jose Mercury News, Contra Costa Times, Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe and East Bay Express.