Maria Schneider: The Thompson Fields

Maria Schneider's The Thompson Fields makes a substantial impression even before a single note is heard. Presented in a hardcover booklet form, the package is enriched by beautiful nature photography, Audubon bird paintings, and text by the composer that provides illuminating background for the eight pieces (ten, if the extra downloads are included). The lavish presentation (achieved through ArtistShare funding) effectively eases the listener into the album and genuinely enhances the listening experience.

Eight years have passed since Schneider's last recording with her jazz orchestra, but there are a number of reasons for the gap. The first is obvious: after the release of Sky Blue in 2007, she invested her creative energy into Winter Morning Walks, an ambitious classical-styled project featuring Dawn Upshaw and two chamber orchestras (the 2013 recording subsequently received three Grammy Awards in the classical category). The second reason is less obvious but no less germane: good music takes time. Schneider is a methodical composer whose works develop at their own pace, and though that might mean a number of years will pass before a new recording materializes, her listeners know that the wait will be worth it.

No doubt the musicians in her eighteen-piece jazz orchestra feel much the same way, as they too realize that when the music's ready they'll be given quality material to play. Bolstering that connection, the relationship between Schneider and her ensemble runs deep, with many of those featured on the album musicians who have been with her for years, among them pianist Frank Kimbrough and tenor saxist Rich Perry. As strong a tie is the one between Schneider and the Thompson farm situated near Windom, Minnesota, her childhood home. The deep feeling that typically suffuses her music seems even more pronounced in the new material, perhaps due to this autobiographical dimension.

Though Winter Morning Walks and The Thompson Fields are dramatically different projects, they share a genuine appreciation for the outdoors, and, in a gesture that makes the tie between them explicit, Schneider recasts the earlier album's “Walking by Flashlight” as a stirring instrumental elevated by Scott Robinson's alto clarinet spotlight. The album's most immediately affecting piece, it's music of quiet grandeur and immense beauty that speaks profoundly on behalf of her composing gifts.

Though Schneider has the resources of a huge ensemble at her disposal, she demonstrates her maturity as an arranger in the way full band passages are accompanied by episodes that feature no more than two musicians. In such moments, the music achieves a flexibility of the kind one associates with a trio or quartet more than big band. And while The Thompson Fields includes music of consummate elegance, there are moments of tumult, too, as shown by the bold solos saxophonists Donny McCaslin (tenor) and Steve Wilson (alto) drape across “Arbiters of Evolution” and “Nimbus,” respectively (Wilson even sneaks in a few “Lonely Woman” references during his blistering turn).

Faint traces of “Shenandoah” shadow the stately title track, and Schneider's luscious rumination exudes a similarly yearning and timeless quality. As heartfelt is the ballad setting “Home,” which she dedicates to George Wein, who of course called the Newport Jazz Festival home, while “A Potter's Song” memorializes trumpeter Laurie Frink, a longtime member of Schneider's band who died in 2013 and also was a skilled ceramicist (hence the title). The seventy-eight-minute collection ends with “Lembrança,” an exuberant setting dedicated to Brazilian musician Paulo Moura and featuring guest percussionist Rogerio Boccato.

Schneider's passion for nature and its creatures finds expression in “The Monarch and the Milkweed,” whose title derives from the the butterfly's reliance on the milkweed for sustenance. The album's titular fields, by the way, are the ones viewed from the farm's silo, and the distance stretching out from that upper vantage point parallels the temporal span of multiple generations. Elsewhere, references to birds, weather, and sky reinforce the nature-inspired tone of the project. Schneider might reside in NYC, but The Thompson Fields intimates that her figurative home is still very much the pastoral countryside of her youth.

July-August 2015