Interview: Jazz queen trumpets beginning of a new era

Big bands have become musical dinosaurs says Phil Johnson but all that could change with the music of Maria Schneider who comes to the Barbican this week breathing new life into orchestral jazz

On Monday nights in New York City, musicians who normally command top dollar pack up their instruments and go out to play for expenses because they like to play in big bands. It's a tradition that began when Broadway theatres stayed closed on Mondays and pit-band musicians could therefore afford the indulgence of doing whatever gigs they pleased. Now the habit has spread and one-night big bands can be found most of the week somewhere along the archipelago of Greenwich Village jazz clubs.

Though their leaders are now dead, the bands of Sun Ra and Charles Mingus reconvene for weekly sessions at The Fez; Oliver Lake has recently taken over the spot held for years by David Murray's big band at the Knitting Factory, and at Visiones the 18-piece orchestra of Maria Schneider has just completed its final Monday night of a five-year run, the gig coming to an end after the club was bought up by its richer neighbour, the Blue Note. On their last night, Schneider's band was astonishingly good, proving that there is still life in the hoary old form of the 18-piece big band. It must be the sheer power of a big band in full flight that makes musicians want to play for peanuts on a Monday night.

Schneider, a strikingly red-headed composer and arranger in her mid-thirties who was born and brought up in the jazz-desert of Minnesota, makes her British debut at the Barbican on Wednesday, as part of the year-long "Inventing America" season. She won't be bringing her own band - the economics of touring large ensembles put paid to the big band boom in the 1950s - but instead leads the famous Danish Radio Orchestra and the star soloist David Sanborn, in a programme devoted to the music of her principal influence, the late Gil Evans.

It was Evans's orchestrations for Miles Davis on albums such as Sketches of Spain that created a whole new language for big band jazz in the late Fifties and early Sixties. Evans changed the customary instrumentation - adding French horns to create a more expressive, orchestral, effect - and favoured harmonic subtlety over the impeccably-timed brash brass and reed choruses that had dominated the form since the swing bands of the Thirties. By doing so, he revitalised a jazz format that, with the exception of Duke Ellington's band, was something of an anachronism amidst the jazz experiments of the post-war years. But despite the example of Evans, the neglected George Russell (who brings an orchestra largely made up of students to the Barbican next month), and a few other notable exceptions, the big band has become an ungainly dinosaur to be trotted out at festivals and big occasions as a vehicle for bravura blowing sessions, or else relegated to the nostalgia-circuit of Glenn Miller soundalikes.

The big band music of Maria Schneider proves that the form has a future, although no-one is going to get rich from it. At Visiones last month, the musicians had to be playing for love, because although the tiny club was packed, there couldn't have been more than 80 people there. The l8 members of the band tripped over each other in order to get to their positions on the trio-sized platform, and Schneider had to set up a recording system herself - stringing microphones along the walls like fairy lights - while simultaneously dealing with an angry trumpeter who was surplus to requirements. At the end of the first set, she went out to get sushi for the band.

Like Evans, Schneider adopts an orchestral approach to the traditional 18-piece ensemble, and her arrangements are coloured with delicate, Debussy- esque washes of sound. "Gil used French horns and everything to get that sound, but I couldn't fit the French horns into Visiones," she says. "So I've been writing for a standard big band but doing everything I can to create more colour and interest, using bucket-mutes, alto flutes and clarinets, and mixing colours so that you don't really know what it is, like blue- green with a little grey. I recently wrote a piece for the Metropole Orchestra in Holland where it was like finally getting the super-set of Crayola crayons where you've been used to working with only the small pack!"

Schneider's reverence for the work of Gil Evans was already well-established when she moved from Minneapolis to New York and began working as a music copyist. "I loved Gil Evans's music because it was so expressive," she says. "Big band music is not typically very expressive of emotion. It has an expression of joy and intensity but I heard in Gil all that subtlety and softness that classical music could have, yet it also had the drive and the quirkiness and the beauty of jazz, and the excitement of improvisation." When a friend whose music she was copying introduced her to Evans, she began copying for him, too, before moving on to transcribing and then re-orchestrating his pieces for larger orchestras. They also worked together on the score for Martin Scorsese's film The Colour of Money, and on music for a European tour by Sting before Evans died in 1988.

Schneider used all of her savings to pay for the recording of her first album, Evanescence, but it remained unreleased until Matthias Winkelmann of Enja Records saw her big band at Visiones one Monday night and was impressed enough to put the record out on his label.

Although Schneider has made the big band, as it were, her home, she has no reverence for its traditions. "The big band is a form that exists in lots of places and I can get my music played there, so I never feel limited by it," she says. "But with my music, you can't just stand up and blow a solo on it. The players really have to get inside of the piece to make it happen. In typical big band music, people write a tune, everyone solos on it and then the tune comes back, but in my music they have to carry the action from point A to point B and not just spill out everything they know and sit down again." If Monday night musicians are more than happy to play for cab-fare, Schneider's music has to be something special.

The Legacy of Gil Evans: Maria Schneider, David Sanborn and the Danish Radio Jazz Orchestra, Barbican, Wednesday 4 Feb, 0171-638 8891.

Five contemporary big band albums

Maria Schneider Jazz Orchestra's `Evanescence' and `Coming About' (Enja); George Russell's Living Time Orchestra: `The London Concert' (Label Bleu); Mingus Big Band: `Gunslinging Birds' (Dreyfus); Kenny Wheeler: `Music For Large and Small Ensembles' (ECM)

people'It can last and it's terrifying'
Danny Welbeck's Manchester United future is in doubt
footballGunners confirm signing from Manchester United
footballStriker has moved on loan for the remainder of the season
footballFeaturing Bart Simpson
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
Katie Hopkins appearing on 'This Morning' after she purposefully put on 4 stone.
peopleKatie Hopkins breaks down in tears over weight gain challenge
Ricky Gervais performs stand-up
Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman topped the list of the 30 most influential females in broadcasting
Kelly Brook
peopleA spokesperson said the support group was 'extremely disappointed'
Life and Style
techIf those brochure kitchens look a little too perfect to be true, well, that’s probably because they are
Andy Murray celebrates a shot while playing Jo-Wilfried Tsonga
TennisWin sets up blockbuster US Open quarter-final against Djokovic
Arts and Entertainment
Hare’s a riddle: Kit Williams with the treasure linked to Masquerade
booksRiddling trilogy could net you $3m
Arts and Entertainment
Alex Kapranos of Franz Ferdinand performs live
music Pro-independence show to take place four days before vote
news Video - hailed as 'most original' since Benedict Cumberbatch's
Life and Style
The longer David Sedaris had his Fitbit, the further afield his walks took him through the West Sussex countryside
lifeDavid Sedaris: What I learnt from my fitness tracker about the world
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    SEN Teaching Assistant

    £50 - £70 per day: Randstad Education Chelmsford: Are you a Teaching Assistant...

    Year 5 Teacher

    Negotiable: Randstad Education Plymouth: Randstad Education Ltd are seeking KS...

    Year 6 Teacher

    Negotiable: Randstad Education Plymouth: Randstad Education Ltd are seeking KS...

    Automation Test Lead (C#, Selenium, SQL, XML, Web-Services)

    £50000 - £55000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Automation Tes...

    Day In a Page

    'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes': US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food served at diplomatic dinners

    'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes'

    US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food
    Radio Times female powerlist: A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

    A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

    Inside the Radio Times female powerlist
    Endgame: James Frey's literary treasure hunt

    James Frey's literary treasure hunt

    Riddling trilogy could net you $3m
    Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

    Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

    What David Sedaris learnt about the world from his fitness tracker
    Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

    Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

    Second-holiest site in Islam attracts millions of pilgrims each year
    Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

    The big names to look for this fashion week

    This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York
    Will Self: 'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

    'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

    Will Self takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
    Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

    Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

    Toy guns proving a popular diversion in a country flooded with the real thing
    Al Pacino wows Venice

    Al Pacino wows Venice

    Ham among the brilliance as actor premieres two films at festival
    Neil Lawson Baker interview: ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.

    Neil Lawson Baker interview

    ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.
    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
    The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

    The model for a gadget launch

    Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
    Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
    Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

    Get well soon, Joan Rivers

    She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
    Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

    A fresh take on an old foe

    Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering