Grammy-winning composer Maria Schneider conducts the Whitworth Jazz Ensemble at their annual concert | Arts & Culture | Spokane | Interior of the Pacific Northwest

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Briene Lermitte Schneider photo

Composer Maria Schneider likes to push musicians to their limits.

For the Whitworth Jazz Ensemble, This weekend’s guest artist jazz concert at the Fox Theater is even bigger than usual. Not only does this mark the event’s return after an 18-month pandemic hiatus, but it’s also a kind of farewell to Dan Keberle, the ensemble’s director, who is retiring after more than 30 years on the faculty of Whitworth.

Keberle himself would prefer to minimize this aspect. “It’s all about the students,” he says.

But the concert is also important because of its guest artist, Maria Schneider, a highly respected jazz composer and bandleader. His album 2020 Data Lords was a Pulitzer Prize finalist and won Schneider his sixth and seventh Grammy Awards – one for Best Large Jazz Ensemble Album, the other for Best Instrumental Composition (for the song “Sputnik”). The 96-minute LP was split into two sections, “The Digital World” and “The Natural World,” and served as a sort of musical commentary on Big Tech’s troubling role in art and culture.

“People call him the modern-day Duke Ellington,” Keberle says. “Her music is not just jazz. She draws a lot of inspiration from all kinds of music: classical, American folk music, film. Sometimes she adds an accordion, and sometimes she adds an electric guitar that you don’t know. You’ve only heard in Cream’s music. And there’s a lot of wood, so sometimes it sounds like a symphony orchestra.

Having a guest artist directing her own work is a first, but it’s not at all unusual for the Guest Artist Jazz Concert to bring in a musician of Schneider’s caliber. For the past three decades, the annual concert has featured artists like Pat Metheny, Lee Konitz, Joe Lovano, Arturo Sandoval, Jimmy Heath, Joshua Redman and Ryan Keberle, a world-class trombonist who also happens to be the son of Dan Keberle, who played in the Schneider Jazz Orchestra for 15 years, a personal connection that may have eased his path to Spokane.

When she joins the Whitworth Jazz Ensemble on April 9, Schneider will lead student musicians in a selection of compositions spanning her entire recording career. There will be four tracks from his debut album, Evanescencereleased in 1994. These will be supplemented by maps of Data Lords as well as his 2015 LP, Thompson Fields.

“It can be really fun working with student bands. For me, the best performances are when the musicians really reach out and really want it to happen,” says Schneider. “Music is, ultimately, vulnerable. It’s vulnerable to the people who play it, and it benefits so much when the attitude behind it is [one of] exceeding expectations.”

“It can be really fun working with student bands. For me, the best performances are when the musicians really reach out and really want it to happen.”

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OWhen working with high schools and universities, Schneider often consults with band managers to choose music that will play to their strengths. However, she tends to reserve material for her own musicians, especially the fusion tracks in the “Digital World” section on Data Lords.

“This music is really, really difficult conceptually, and I’d be wary of giving that to student bands. But we’re doing a few songs on my debut album that have that kind of intensity, and it just happens to be both pieces of mine which were David Bowie’s favorite pieces and which made him come to me to collaborate in 2014,” says Schneider.

“And that kind of brought me back to my dark side,” she adds with a laugh, “so in a way, the precursor to Data Lords will be represented at the concert.”

Keberle is eager to tackle Schneider’s music as his challenges will provide a great showcase for Whitworth musicians, many of whom are graduating this year. To accommodate the composer’s unique instrumentation, the ensemble’s musicians will be joined by recent Whitworth graduate Jansen Leggett on accordion, as well as musicians from the Whitworth Symphony Orchestra and the Whitworth Wind Symphony.

“His saxophone section is more like woodwind parts. Instead of just five saxophones, they can be any combination of saxophones, with a flute here and a piccolo there and a bass clarinet here. That’s how that we’re adapting. It’s kind of a good idea. It gives some of our classical musicians a chance to work with her, even if it’s on one or two tracks,” he says.

And while big band jazz tends to be more “written” than its small band variants (trio, quartet and quintet), there will be opportunities for them to demonstrate their chops. Schneider’s music leaves a lot of room for improvisation.

“She’s got long solos, and I’ve got these great talented soloists. I’ve got students who can really pull it off and play long solos that make sense and fit the song and can grow,” Keberle says. “A lot of these artists could be in any major music school in the country.” ♦

Whitworth Jazz Ensemble Guest Artist Jazz Concert with Maria Schneider • Saturday, April 9 at 8 p.m. • $15 to $25 • Martin Woldson Theater at Fox • 1001 W. Sprague Ave. • whitworth.edu/jazzensemble • 509-624-1200

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