Bandleader Maria Schneider walks a wintry tightrope over her jazz success


Composer Maria Schneider conducts a concert performance from her new album of chamber orchestra music, Winter Morning Walks. Courtesy

Winter Morning Walks Maria Schneider/Dawn Upshaw/ The Australian Chamber Orchestra/ The St. Paul Chamber Orchestra (ArtistShare)

The most beautiful sound in all the world…Maria’s. So Leonard Bernstein might’ve commented on how our finest jazz orchestra composer attains comparable artistry with a chamber orchestra. Setting two groups of poems, Schneider catches the wings of soprano Dawn Upshaw, whose singing swells and soars with a deep-hearted glow. Ted Kooser’s winter poems tip-toe with Frost-like reflection, which Schneider wraps exquisitely in crystalline yet wind-supple gestures. It’s gorgeous stuff, yet Schneider fragments her flow when needed, and smartly contrasts Kooser’s wide-eyed wonder with Carlos Drummond’s knowingly droll verse, including “Quadrille,” a wry meditation on unrequited love’s cruel turns.

Despite the CD’s titular theme which evokes the “bone-cracking cold” of a perfect solstice morning, Schneider again displays a melting lyricism. That quality distinguishes her from most of her jazz orchestra contemporaries and may be rooted in her classical training at the University of Minnesota, which predated her jazz schooling at Eastman School of Music. For example, there’s the stylistic manner of periodically repeating the poet’s line in the score for the singer to double up on. This commonplace of art song helps honor inspirations and allows felicitous variations of phrasing.

Schneider has long mastered a floating rubato pace rare among jazz composers typically dependent on a measure of rhythmic matrix or pulse. This allows her to daub and dash her orchestral palette with a vivid array of colors which often evoke mentor Gil Evans as much as any contemporary classic composer. A recent New York Times article recounts her trying to re-orchestrate an Evans piece at the request of the great arranger-composer, who is best known for his triumphs with Miles Davis.

“I was in my 20s and felt completely out of my league,” Schneider recalled. “One day I came in with what I wrote and (Evans) was horrified. He said: ‘No, no, no. I want those low instruments at the top of the range so they’re uncomfortable. And these high instruments at the bottom of their range.’ He wanted people playing completely at the opposite range at struggling points in the music. And then it was just, My God, that’s the stuff you can’t learn.” 1

But you hear Evans-esque sorcery in her new music. Schneider inserts atonal passages with prudence and purpose, as in “Our Finch Feeder” which sonically mimics the hustle-bustle of hungry birds.

Her die-hard jazz fans may miss the improvised solos she garlands her more familiar works with. The new key here is soprano Upshaw, a master of contemporary classical music but not a jazz singer. Like much of Schneider’s recent jazz music, this is virtually all through-composed, even though three of her jazz mates (pianist Frank Kimbrough, bassist Jay Anderson and clarinetist/bass clarinetist Scott Robinson) play in portions.


Soprano Dawn Upshaw (left) with composer-conductor Maria Schneider. Courtesy

And yet a vocal passage like the prologue for Drummond’s De Anrade Stories has a lilting air reminiscent of passages she’s concocted for jazz singer Luciana Souza, as on Schneider’s Emmy-winning “Cerulean Skies” from Sky Blue. Unsurprisingly, Upshaw handles this textually abstract passage with aviary splendor. She’s one of the best reasons for people to hear the new CD, having become a sort of crossover star due to the deep, accessible humanity of her singing and the catholicity of her tastes. She had become a Schneider fan and approached the composer about this project.

It’s a chance for such listeners to expand their horizon just as it is for classical fans who’ve never heard the likes Schneider. This recording is recommended to anyone who loves good music regardless of categorical appendage.

Ms. Schneider’s personal point of view is worth considering. I read about the new CD in The New York Times Sunday Magazine. 2 As Zachary Woolfe wrote, “Schneider still lives in the same cozy one-bedroom on the Upper West Side that she hauled music stands to and from all those years ago.”

maria CD cover

CD cover courtesy

I’m hardly a high-profile music critic. Yet I received a copy of Ms. Schneider’s CD (via ace publicist Ann Braithwaite) within a week of the article, directly from the composer in the mail. Woolf characterizes Schneider as “prone to insecurity.” If so, this is complemented by remarkable courage. As a woman, she’s forged a currently unparalleled career in a still male-dominated jazz field. Her label ArtistShare, which she co-founded, pioneered the ambitious DIY concept of fan-financed recordings. But I wonder if her “insecurities” also reflect a gender difference, having to do with ego and humility. Schneider defers to Upshaw for top billing on the CD cover. Though many jazz bandleaders (including Evans) have performed technically limited “arranger’s piano,” Schneider never plays piano in public. Her sensibility also suggests a consistently humble Midwesterner’s experience of nature.

There’s also a celebratory rapture in this pastoral music that is characteristic Schneider and, it seems to me, an always-precious commodity in such spirit-deflating times as ours.

If she’s risking a wintry tightrope walk over her jazz success, her skills are as surefooted as a hardy north woodsman’s.


A shorter version of this article was published in The Shepherd Express.

1 The New York Times Sunday Magazine, April 13, p. 22

2 Ibid p. 20



A remarkable Mother’s Day story of an unforgettable “Lady” and her gifted son, Arshile Gorky

SF=WHIT.FRAMES F8+-The Artist and his Mother Arshile Gorky, oil, 1926–36 Courtesy

Dear moms,

Motherhood is as universal a human experience as it is distinctively personal and intimate, and a measure of a woman’s intelligence, soul and character.

That’s why I have great respect and admiration for all you — my sisters, relatives and friends — who’ve had to answer to “mother” or “mom” or even to “hey, ma” or “gimme the ketchup” or “Can I have the car keys?”

Or to even greater challenges to your will and wisdom like “Did I really come from a baby seed catalog?” or “I’m almost six and all the other kids have smart phones.”

Try to remember you can only do so much, and know when to let them go, so they flourish in ways that will surprise and even astonish, and inspire pride you never imagined.

Because from your womb, love and nurturing they find their own special genius as whole persons. At that point, a son or daughter completes the evolution of universal growth to the unforgettable human, with your beautiful imprint, who belongs to the world.

Happy Mother’s Day,



Inline image 2

Lady Shushanik (The Artist’s Mother), Arshile Gorky, charcoal 1938 

Courtesy The Art Institute of Chicago

The above message and images were sent earlier today to a group of sisters, relatives and friends whom I felt were richly deserving of my personal sentiment.

I tried to avoid mawkishness for considered sincerity. And when I quickly thought of these two images to accompany it, I realized how much my sensibility has been influenced by the great Armenian-American artist, Arshile Gorky.

That’s when I decided to extend this personal Mother’s Day greeting to everyone online, because, as I say, the experience of motherhood is universal for all children, as well as mothers.

And yet, as I made my e-mail list, I realized I didn’t know as many mothers well as I would’ve thought I did at this point in my life. I won’t go into personal reasons why that might be, aside from being of a childless single person. But for Culture Currents I also wanted to share some thoughts about Gorky’s extraordinary portraits, which lack any trace of conventional sentimentality, and yet are profoundly imbued with love and feeling, and with a sense of history that traces the importance of motherhood as, not inconsiderably, a sort of spiritual talisman.

Notice that Gorky spent a full decade working and reworking the portrait of himself and his mother. I think he was grappling somewhat with how to resolve his visual representation of his relationship to her. Part of that comes from his modernist painterly approach which delved into rough-hewn textures and colors that opened up the inquiry into modern being, in a manner that classical portraiture handling could not.

As Gorky wrote to his sister Vartoosh on November 24, 1940: “Aesthetic or highest art is that which responds sensitively to complexity and thereby enables man to better understand the complexity.” 1

The fact that he left the work unfinished also perhaps reflects his unresolved and complex feelings about his relationship with his mother. There’s also a testament, in those almost wind-blown branch-like strokes at the end of her apron, which might signify children fallen from the maternal tree, and thus witness to the full cycle of maternal experience.

And while Gorky broke away from classical portraiture he also grew out of it and understood its distinctive strength qualities. So he composed a rather formal posture of the two figures, which saves the work from any sentimentality or undue romanticism.

And of course his deeply accomplished charcoal portrait of his mother reveals his underlying mastery of classical technique. Here you see something that’s intensely evident in all three faces in these two works. What I see in that portrait is the indomitable strength, courage and love of a beautiful mother who has endured a racist genocide and exile during the Ottoman occupation of Armenia.

“She was the most aesthetically appreciative, the most politically incisive master I have encountered in all my life… Mother was Queen of the aesthetic domain,” Gorky wrote.

“Lady Shushanik (‘Lovely Lily’ in Armenian), established his artistic formation, engulfing him in art and assuring he not abandon the calling thus forged,” wrote his nephew and biographer Karlen Mooradian. 2

Young Arshile, whose given name was Vosdanik Adoian, and his sister Vartoosh, fled from Armenia to America.

250px-arshile-gorky (1)

Arshile Gorky Courtesy fashionablyla.blogspot

After I visited the great Gorky retrospective at the Guggenheim Museum in New York in 1981, I had the opportunity to visit Vartoosh and Karlen Mooradian, her son and Gorky’s nephew, who wrote a Gorky biography and a “documentary montage” of recollections and Gorky letters.

They both lived in Chicago at the time. They seemed to appreciate the Gorky retrospective review I had written, and that I was an artist as well as a critic. I regret that I was never able to do much with that interview. I do recall them as two people of serious, kind and sincere feeling.

But Vartoosh had previously recalled the hellish time when the Turks massacred 50,000 Armenians: “We walked day and night with little rest. We had no food to speak up. If mother found anything she would give it to Gorky because you take more care of boys than girls and he was the only boy and he was very thin.”

The family’s father had emigrated in 1908 to the United States to avoid conscription into the Turkish army. Conditions worsened for the fatherless Adoians and on March 20, 1919, the mother died of starvation at the age of 39. Gorky, 15, and Vatroosh, 13, became virtual orphans until a family friend helped guide them to Athens and the liner SS Presidente Wilson. The siblings arrived at Ellis Island on February 26, 1920. 3

And yet it’s clear in Gorky’s soul-piercing charcoal portrait of his mother that her flame still burned brightly within him.

Vartoosh was the person closest to Gorky throughout his life. So I offer this photograph of her and her own son, which Karlen gave to me, as a portrait of two of Lady Shushanik’s offspring.


Vartoosh Mooradian (Gorky’s sister) and her son Karlen Mooradian, ca. 1981. Courtesy Karlen Mooradian.

I think it provides symmetry to the Gorky painting. Lady S’s descendants — another mother and son — somewhat echo the Gorky portrait of himself and his mother. Here they sit comfortably and warmly together, without any evidence of direct existential suffering (except perhaps in Vartoosh’s eyes) which surely affected Gorky and his mother, who curiously avoided contact with each other (the painting was based on a similarly composed photograph portrait).

Those two painted figures still haunt me. Because, without Gorky’s courageous and tragic Lady Mother, the world would have been robbed of one of the great artists of the 20th century.

1Arshile Gorky Adoian, Karlen Mooradian, Gilgamesh, 1978,  265

2. Ibid, 99

3. Arshile Gorky: 1904 – 1948 A Retrospective, Diane Waldman,  Guggenheim Museum/Abrams 1981, 14









Edo de Waart records Mahler/Harvey Taylor’s new trumpeting

Mahler 1

Gustav Mahler Symphony No. 1 Edo De Waart, Royal Flemish Philharmonic (A- List)

Though it can be pedantic, there’s also a genius of insight to artistic fidelity. Edo Du Waart demonstrates that gift with sure-handed clarity and purpose in his new recording of Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 with the Royal Flemish Philharmonic.

This sounds like the purest transmission of what Mahler penned on to the page that I’ve heard. A late romantic like Mahler is readily vulnerable to idiosyncratic interpretations by conductors. Sometimes, with Leonard Bernstein and a few others, this works well because the shadows of perception cast upon Mahler’s music frequently reflect back in startling and emotionally enveloping ways that seem to invite a psychological embodiment by the interpreter. (Or more simply, the wayward theatricality inherent in Mahler’s big designs works a certain way for the Bernsteins, or to a slightly lesser degree to Bernstein protégé John DeMain, a celebrated opera conductor whose Mahler cycle I witnessed in Madison.)

But one must tread with caution in the grotesqueries of theatrical effect, even if Mahler has his grotesques. This CD annotator somewhat overstates in saying “the strident brass provides a disorienting rancidity” in the second movement’s famous funeral march. It’s too beautiful a total effect to ever be “rancid,” as much as the tonalities may clash at times. And Du Waart always makes sure we know that experientially.

Du Waart — also music director of the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra — will suffer none of this. So if you’re entertained by provocative personality postures this interpretation might seem a little dry. But I turned it on and it pulled me through to its thrilling end via the profundity of transparency, when you consider the depths revealed.

This First is as boffo and eloquent as anyone’s because it’s real, not dressed-up-like, Mahler.

Yet if it’s relatively unadorned Mahler, what is that Mahler?

It’s good to recall the composer’s powerful yet unsettling place in music history. His symphonies find their indelible place with what Theodor Adorno calls their “thoroughgoing discontinuity.” Those who feel comfortable in sonata-allegro form can be unnerved, to say the least. Rather than a top-down overriding structural continuity we follow Mahler through many odd and often enchanting incidents which, in ways, are the essence of his music, rather than the grandness of form that seems presumed by the scale of his most gargantuan symphonies.

As Adorno has said, the discontinuities and even his banalities are “allegories of the so-called ‘lower depths’ of the “insulted in the socially injured”, a byproduct of “a passionate reader of Dostoevsky” 1 and, perhaps at a more personal level, “the genuine fears of a downtrodden Jew,” as Adorno puts it. 2 Since the music has been composed from bottom up, “the listener must abandon himself (herself) to the flow of work, as the story when you do not know where it is going to end.” 3


Gustav Mahler Courtesy 

The cues to stepping into this liberating aura arrive with each moment that you seem to become lost, or probably closer to be found, in Mahler’s reality. In the first symphony, one encounters the swirling and mightily off-kilter strides that climax the first movement in which, again Adorno says, it is something like “the soul thrown back on itself (which) no longer feels home in its traditional idiom.” Or more grandly, aims to “transform art in to an arena for the invasion of an absolute,” which might be the titanic throes in the great finale of the First. 4

And here, this sense of vertigo-like imbalance is akin to Mahler’s fellow countryman Franz Kafka.  As with Kafka’s absurd quasi-reality, we’re stricken with an anxiety that feeds alienation on the very doorstep of what we think of as ourself, our home, our country. Indeed, the finale’s combo of a primal anxiety with a cathartic song of thunder remains – in such pure Mahler – a thrilling experience.

Here’s another bottom line. A powerful recording statement like this should compel the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra to get De Waart into a recording studio with their band, maybe doing one of the Mahler symphonies they have performed recently in Milwaukee.

After all, you never know when an international talent might be gone forever. We’ve lost many lesser lights all too soon.


  1. Theodor Adorno Quasi-Una Fantasia: Essays on Modern Music  Verso 1992 86
  2. Ibid 88
  3. Ibid 87
  4. 4 Ibid 84-85

Sittin in inser tfront

Michael Link/Harvey Taylor – Sittin’ In

As per the title, this album feels quite informal which reflects one of its most redeeming qualities: likability. It won’t deeply move you, except perhaps onto the dance floor, as a sort of ambient, trance-dance disc. Michael Link imaginatively manipulates electronic rhythmic patterns and textures, especially on the “Vajra and the Whale” which evokes the humpback whale’s song, and the funky mad-inventor aura, provided by guitarist Michael Sullivan, on “Smoke and Mirrors.”

Trumpeter Taylor recalls Miles Davis’ tiptoe-through-the-pop-song-tulips period. He unfurls melodic and faintly mournful phrases, although at times Link’s strong rhythmic pulses call for the trumpeter to take off and fly. Earthbound he remains, radiating amiable warmth; so the music teases your interest, soothes. You feel its quirky underlying pulses and maybe a spring in your step into the day.

For a more full realized imaginative investigation of these musicians’ creative and conceptual potential, listen to the CD A Story for Scheherazade, released under Taylor’s name two years ago.

It’s a colorful and daring reimagining of the great Middle Eastern myth of Scheherazade. Inspired by a trip he took to the Middle East , Taylor aptly feels it has something to teach us “about the possibilities of art to heal, inspired and enlighten” especially in times  “of dreadful misunderstanding and conflict” between the West and the Middle East.

I’ve long felt that our ignorance of Middle Eastern culture is a large contributor to the ongoing geopolitical conflict that’s become an almost intractable quagmire. (Taylor CDs are  available at


Climber-skiier-banojist Bill Briggs redux and a correction


Pioneering skiier, climber and banjoist Bill Briggs in 1976. Photo by Kevin Lynch

For those of you who’ve read my previous story of the remarkable Bill Briggs, extreme-sport pioneer and Bob Dylan collaborator, here’s a photo of a scene I allude to in the posting.

Briggs is rowing toward Mount Moran in the background. I think it captures some of the intensity and determination of the only person to have ever skied down from the summit of The Grand Teton.

And I think he really does look like singer-songwriter Malcolm Holcombe. Their personalities are somewhat similar as well — intense, a bit eccentric, but essentially sweet fellows.

Also, I incorrectly stated that our Moran climb was in 1973. The correct year was 1976.


Trumpeter Jamie Breiwick plays at his CD release party Saturday at the Jazz Estate


Trumpeter, flugelhornist and composer Jamie Breiwick is one of the most talented and inspiring musicians I’ve met in quite a while. He’s a major force in Milwaukee’s surprisingly strong new generation of jazz musicians and educators.

So I’d like to alert all of this blog’s readers to his brand-new album Spirits, recorded at the Jazz Estate in November and released on the Chicago-based Blujazz label.( Jamie’s quartet will perform at a CD release party for Spirits at 9:30 p.m. Saturday at the scene of the recording, The Jazz Estate, 2423 N. Murray, on Milwaukee’s eastside.

Full disclosure compels me to inform you that I wrote the liner notes for this album, but I did so with serious enthusiasm. So I’ll leave you with those liner notes, for Spirits:

Open the door on the album cover and you enter the Jazz Estate, a Milwaukee club that exemplifies a venue that nurtures modern straight-ahead jazz and makes money at it. This recording was made there one night, even if the program has the well-considered sense of purpose of a studio recording.

The melody of the opening “Gig Shirt” has a slightly skewed trumpet-saxophone harmony, recalling Ornette Coleman’s classic/radical quartet, which certainly influenced the album’s piano-less instrumentation. The theme bodes well for a musical departure, especially in its expansive rising last notes.

This journey’s departure mean’s arrival at many musical ports, including some adapted pop-rock. “I Will Follow You into the Dark” by Death Cab for Cutie front man Ben Gibbard, is a mournful yet oddly resolute melody. Breiwick’s muted trumpet sounds playful, as if he’s wooing a young woman with a joke. The rhythm players burble along in the same coy spirit, lifting the interpretation’s insouciance and the band ends with an exquisite exhalation.

“Safe and Sound,” by country-pop artist Taylor Swift, is another strong and pliable melody that tenor saxophonist Tony Barba builds from close, pinprick-sharp variations until he unfurls some Joe Henderson-like flag-waving. Breiwick’s own “Little Bill” is a funky, amiable tune that honors the memory of his Grandfather Bill and also refers to The Bill Cosby produced cartoon of the same name, which Breiwick’s children love to watch. “Dad” adopts a slightly gruff tone and Barba is almost flippantly offhanded, befitting the sit-com mood.

This band has a svelte-but-sure grip on the harmonic and rhythmic tension of “Capricorn,” a Wayne Shorter theme that seems to move in two directions at once while flowing as a seamless melody — characteristic of Shorter’s ineffable compositional genius. If that sounds like a chops-busting practice-room etude, “Capricorn” rises like an indelibly hummable melody. The band swings hard out of the gate, as Barba plunges in with pithy Shorterisms — slanting shards, open-throated exhortations and quotes of the sorcerer-like theme. Breiwick shifts gears    with mute in bell, then creeps into a softly growling, splattered tone that recalls Don Cherry. He’s clearly finding his own forward-pushing place in the trumpet tradition. Bassist Tim Ipsen steps in like a heady middleweight contender, with a sly combination of punchy harmonic intervals.

The aphoristically titled “Walk through Daydreams, Sleep through Nightmares” reflects Breiwick’s magnanimous depth as a member of the jazz community. He leads two jazz bands, including a more pop rock-oriented one called Choir Fight. He’s also an educator, organizer and all-around go-getter, having co-founded Milwaukee Jazz Visions, a musician-run organization that promotes the local jazz scene, especially with an excellent website: This tune is by one of Breiwick’s own former students, Philip Dizack, a fast-rising young trumpeter of uncommon lyrical strength and compositional maturity. Breiwick acknowledges that crafting a songfully expressive melodic line is a primary concern of his. “I believe the album’s aesthetic intent points to a depth of feeling in the music,” he says. “Beyond technique, which is obviously hugely important, emotional communication is a priority.”

“Walk” opens with swelling mallet rolls and cymbals. The two horns resound like one voice, or mind, experiencing a revelation. Then everyone pulls back, as if in a slight state of awe, to contemplate the implications of the “Eureka” moment. One imagines a lightning bolt having struck the narrative consciousness right at its precipitous leap from daydream to nightmare. It recalls John Coltrane’s more pensive lyrical moments in his late years, when he pushed the spiritual-empowerment envelope like the shaman Dr. King might have met on that windswept mountain top.

The program follows appropriately with Barba’s title tune “Spirits.” A simple rising interval, extrapolated and harmonized, seems like a wisp of a theme, yet these men plumb its modality as if climbing the branches of a majestic tree. It stands like a spirit, inviting as it is inherently challenging for the earthbound.

Consequently the closing tune, “Sunset and the Mockingbird,” is also apt, from the pen of Duke Ellington, a timeless jazz presence. This is Duke’s indigo mood, and Barba proves he can fabricate a short story whole cloth from textured whole notes, while Breiwick is a mockingbird with genuine feelings. He evokes Ellington trumpeter Cootie Williams’ muted sorrow, as an elegy to whatever the sunset bade farewell, something to cherish, and live up to.

Spirits demonstrates extraordinary range and vision from this new jazz generation, and delivers on promise as if tapped into a musical wellspring flowing through their veins.  — Kevin Lynch

I hope to see you at the Estate Saturday night.