Composer and director makes beautiful music at New York's Visiones jazz club

By Will Friedwald
Updated July 12, 1996 at 04:00 AM EDT

When a photographer suggests shooting Maria Schneider in her bathtub, the New York-based jazz orchestra leader and composer sighs. ”You wouldn’t shoot Aaron Copland in a bathtub,” she jokes. Well, perhaps, but Copland didn’t look like this.

If Schneider’s strawberry blond, blue-eyed looks get the paparazzi’s pulses racing, her music has the cognoscenti enraptured. Critics and fans alike regard Schneider, 35, as one of the most dynamic new voices in jazz. The proof is in the growing queue of young listeners outside her home base, a boxy little jazz club called Visiones in New York’s Greenwich Village, where Schneider’s 18-piece ensemble performs every Monday. Capping off a recent hot streak that began with a commission for Schneider to compose a major piece (entitled El Viento) for Carnegie Hall in 1994, her second album, Coming About, has just been released. She calls her music orchestral jazz. ”I don’t want people to say, ‘This isn’t Count Basie,”’ Schneider says. ”I want them to give themselves over to the music…That’s why I call it an orchestra, not a big band. But there definitely are moments of big-band power. And it does grab them, if they’re open to it.”

”She has a wonderful command of the orchestra as an instrument,” says Jon Faddis, director of the Carnegie Hall Jazz Band. ”Like Frank Foster and Slide Hampton, she gets great colors and harmonies.”

Raised in the small town of Windom, Minn., Schneider came to New York in 1985 to work and study with her idols Bob Brookmeyer and Gil Evans, with whom she forged an exciting compositional style. In 1988, with her then husband, trombonist and composer John Fedchock, she led an orchestra at Visiones that evolved into her current group. That ensemble includes some of the best young players on the New York scene, like trumpeter Greg Gisbert and bassist Tony Scherr.

On being a female conductor, Schneider mentions the time a woman commented to her, ”It’s fun to see such a powerful band with a woman in front.” Remarks Faddis, ”I think her music and her arrangements stand up with anybody, regardless of race, creed, or sex.”

”I hope that [being a woman] doesn’t help or hurt,” Schneider says. ”It’s hopefully about the music.”