Maria Schneider Orchestra and Kneebody: Many voices, one vision 

PDX Jazz Festival opening weekend bands share fondness for diverse influences. But there’s one big difference.

by ANGELA ALLEN

“I have always loved a lot of different kinds of music,” Maria Schneider said in February from her Manhattan apartment where she’s lived for decades. In her multiple Grammy-winning jazz orchestra’s music, “the colors and forms and textures come from classical, flamenco, and Brazilian influences.” They’re tied together. “I love melody,” she says. “I love tonality.”

Schneider makes her West Coast debut with her orchestra this Friday, Feb. 17 at the BiAmp PDX Jazz Festival. If PDX is her destination and New York her base, the Midwest is her heart’s home, and this tour will include heartland stops.

Maria Schneider. Photo: Dina Regine.

Minnesota is the inspiration for Schneider’s latest much acclaimed album, The Thompson Fields. She grew up on the state’s southwest prairies next to a flax plant that her father ran outside of tiny Windom. She fell in love with the wide-open landscape, which she calls “both surreal and pastoral,” and with the birds. Though the strawberry blonde (her hair naturally remains that vivid color at 56) showed promise as a piano player by eight years old, she told her second-grade teacher she wanted to be an ornithologist when she grew up. She had to explain the term to her teacher and class.

Many of her songs invoke birds, including The Thompson Fields’s  “Arbiters of Evolution.” Expect to hear pieces from this sonic homage to the natural world at the Friday show. But get ready for bleaker stuff, including her brand-new “Data Lords.”

“I’ll wait till everybody gets nestled in before that one,” she says. “It’s very dark and apocalyptic. I’m quite disturbed that companies control us through their analytics. Big data is not a good thing for the world. It undermines our democracy and our own choice.”

Schneider is playing a major national role in music copyright and fair digital streaming issues, but her main endeavor is her music. She conducts and composes and has kept her ensemble together and occasionally on tour (despite members’ many other obligations) for the last 25 years. Eight members of Schneider’s 18-piece orchestra have been part of her group since 1992, when she officially started her band after co-leading it for a couple of years before that.

Schneider attended the prestigious Eastman School of Music in Rochester, N.Y. in the ‘80s, after earning a degree in jazz composition the University of Minnesota and briefly attending the University of Miami. She has recorded nine albums, many fan-funded through ArtistShare, and received Grammys in a number of categories, such as classical composition, vocal performance, best arrangement and engineering. The Thompson Fields received her latest Grammy in 2016 for the Best Large Jazz Ensemble Album.

Her ensemble resembles a big band, but not in the Duke Ellington-Benny Goodman sense with big brass and solid swing. “I have found a way to stretch the instrumentation, to combine instruments, to have space to improvise” Schneider explains. “My band doesn’t really sound like a typical big band; it sounds more like an orchestra.”

Schneider’s music tells stories and paints pictures. Early in her career she considered scoring films, so image and narration fall together as neatly and naturally as the notes as she composes. Schneider says her music “goes from room to room. The music has a context and a story to it. The players are doing more than displaying their prowess. They are putting their spin on the story. And each time they are telling it a little differently.

“We’ve played together for so many years,” she continues. “Everyone does their part to improve the composition, even if we play things differently each time. It’s wonderful to watch the band play and see the delight they have in each other.”

Kneebody: All over the map

While all the members contribute to her band’s sound, Schneider’s band owes its vision and direction, as well as its name, to its leader. That’s different from the band that performs the next day at the festival.

Kneebody’s same five guys – keyboardist Adam Benjamin, trumpeter Shane Endsley, electric bassist Kaveh Rastegar, saxophonist Ben Wendel and drummer Nate Wood — have played and composed as one since 2001. Their democratic approach to playing, composing, and working together means that no one person controls the direction of the music on stage or off.

Several Grammy nominations and nine albums since they formed in 2001 have not pushed Kneebody to name an official leader. “We pass it around,” saxophonist Ben Wendel said from his Brooklyn home this month.

Kneebody performs at PDX Jazz Festival on Saturday. Photo: methodman13.

Kneebody has a special cueing system. “We play phrases to each other that tell band mates to do things. It’s spontaneous but allows us to move from one song to another,” Wendel explained. Anyone in the band can cue the language, and it is more complex and precise than the front man circling his head to signal a return to melody or theme. Wendel says the system “changes the dynamic, gives an extra layer. To the listener it sounds as if a lot is planned, but the music is arranged on the spot.” The Kneebody crew, who met at Eastman (also Schneider’s alma mater ), graduated in the late ‘90s. Some members went on to study at Cal Arts.

The band’s ninth album, Anti-Hero, on Motéma Music, described on Kneebody’s website as “the pulsating result of that creative rebirth, featuring an assured set of churning backbeats and unrestrained exploration,” will be released in early March and will be the centerpiece of the Portland show.

Just as it avoids a single leader, Kneebody’s hyper-energetic complex mix of jazz and other genres grows out of numerous influences: baseball, Ithaca, John Coltrane, Denver, field music, Rolling Stone, The Kinks. Its sound ranges from electric jazz to straight-ahead to indie-rock to post-millennial minimalist free bop to “chamber rock.” The quintet’s intention was for music-lovers to “just come to the show with an open mind and open ears,” Wendel, 40, said. “It’s all over the map.”

“We noticed our sound was difficult to pinpoint, so we thought we’d give the band a name that didn’t signal where the music is coming from,” Wendel explained. “We sound like Kneebody.”

Wendel calls the band’s name “short and memorable,” and one that he attached to an early song with the spelling, “Kneebodi.” The group changed the “i” to a “y” to “make the name just a little funnier,” he said.

Still, there is a distinctive Kneebody sound. “When you see a band that’s been together for a long time, there’s a sense of communion, a sense of joy,” Wendel said. “It’s really contagious. You can see five people becoming one voice. There’s a certain power to that, beyond analysis. People are reacting to the energy.”

PDX Jazz Festival presents Maria Schneider’s Grammy-award-winning orchestra at 7 p.m. Friday at Portland’s Newmark Theatre, 1111 SW Broadway. Tickets, which began selling quickly in November, range from $45-$75 and are available online

Kneebody plays a general-admission concert at 3 p.m. Saturday at Portland’s Winningstad Theatre. Tickets are $30 online ($35 at the door) with first-come first-served seating. 

Angela Allen lives in Portland and writes about the arts. She is a published poet and photographer and teaches creative and journalistic writing to Portland-area students. Her web site is angelaallenwrites.com.  She will be hosting a pre-concert Jazz Conversation with Maria Schneider at 5:30 p.m. Friday at the ArtBar.   

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