Music Makers


A jazz composer and a classical singer would not, on the surface, seem to be natural collaborators. But a new CD, "Winter Morning Walks," features the music of Maria Schneider and singer Dawn Upshaw.

It stretches both artists in new directions, as Jeff Lunden reports.

JEFF LUNDEN, BYLINE: Minnesota-born composer Maria Schneider has called New York home for over 30 years, and she knows how to find nature in the middle of the city.


LUNDEN: Since her new album is called "Winter Morning Walks," on a recent chilly morning, we walked to Schneider's favorite bird-watching spot in Central Park.

MARIA SCHNEIDER: This part right here in the ramble and this azalea pond area is just teeming with warblers. On a good day, you can see 18 warbler species in the morning, maybe even more. And I love New York, but this makes New York feel like it has everything.


DAWN UPSHAW: (Singing in foreign language)

LUNDEN: For singer Dawn Upshaw, one of the things she likes most about New York is the opportunity to hear all kinds of music. And over the years, she frequently went to the Jazz Standard to hear Maria Schneider's Orchestra. But she wanted to be more than just a fan.

UPSHAW: We had met also, but I decided to actually ask her to write something for me. I thought, I'm just going to brave this.


UPSHAW: It was really, kind of - talk about outside the box, it was more outside of the box than I had probably ever jumped.

LUNDEN: Their first collaboration, a 2008 song cycle for the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, was so happy, the two artists wanted to work again immediately, says Schneider.

SCHNEIDER: I wanted to write something for her that had some improvisation in and around her. So I said, Dawn, if I write something else for you, I want to do something where maybe I pick a couple of guys from my band that play on it too. And she got really excited about it. She said, I don't really improvise. And I said, well, in the jazz sense, I'm not going to have you do this and it's not really going to sound, I don't think, like jazz.

LUNDEN: The result was "Winter Morning Walks," which features three members of Schneider's band and the Australian Chamber Orchestra.


UPSHAW: (Singing) Perfectly still this solstice morning...

LUNDEN: Schneider took some poems by former United States Poet Laureate Ted Kooser, who lives in Garland, Nebraska, and set them to music.

SCHNEIDER: I love all his books but "Winter Morning Walks" is, to me, the most moving. You know, I'm from southwest Minnesota. They feel - the landscape, the light, the things he describes, I mean, they're so, so beautiful.


UPSHAW: (Singing) Walking by flashlight at six, at six in the morning...

SCHNEIDER: The one that may be my favorite - I mean I love them all. The "Walking by Flashlight," Walking by flashlight at six in the morning, my circle of light on the gravel swinging side to side. Coyote, raccoon, field mouse, sparrow, each watching this man with the moon on a leash.


SCHNEIDER: I love that.


UPSHAW: (Singing) My circle of light on the gravel swinging, swinging, swinging, swinging, swinging side to side...

LUNDEN: Dawn Upshaw calls Schneider's setting of "Walking by Flashlight" a gem.

UPSHAW: She can write a tune. I mean oh, my gosh. There is such a naturalness, such beauty to her musical lines. It's just extraordinary.


UPSHAW: (Singing) Each watching from darkness this man with the moon on a leash.

LUNDEN: This burst of melody is a response to what might be considered a grim place in poet Ted Kooser's life. Diagnosed with cancer of the tongue and neck in 1998, he underwent surgery and radiation treatment. He says he was so depressed, he stopped writing and reading. But he did go on pre-dawn walks, alone and with his wife, near his home.

TED KOOSER: And, uh, one morning, I came home and I sat down with my notebook close at hand. And, you know, I had been keeping a journal but I wasn't writing any poems. And I wrote this little poem and I was really thrilled that that had come back for me. You know, that that was a sign that maybe I was kind of recovering in a lot of ways.

LUNDEN: Ultimately, Kooser wrote over 100 poems, which became the basis of "Winter Morning Walks."


UPSHAW: (Singing) How important it must be to someone that I am alive and walking...

LUNDEN: Both Upshaw and Schneider have had their own battles with cancer.

UPSHAW: We think we understand our faith or our sense of beginning and ending. But it's not till a moment like that that you find out what you really feel. And everything in life becomes heightened, especially things in the natural world. Beautiful things like light and the sound of those birds or whatever, it overtakes you with a sense of appreciation and love and beauty.

LUNDEN: Upshaw will be taking "Winter Morning Walks" on tour in Australia next season. In the meantime, the music is now available on CD and downloads.

For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden in New York.


UPSHAW: (Singing) This morning, the sun stood right at the end of the road and waited...

GREENE: It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm David Greene.


And I'm Steve Inskeep.


UPSHAW: (Singing) The sun stood right at the end of the road and waited for me...

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