Maria Schneider Orchestra, The Thompson Fields (artistShare)
Maria Schneider leads a band of eighteen of the best musicians in New York and keeps winning awards for being on the leading edge of composers and arrangers. Yet, her orchestra’s first album in eight years does not draw its primary inspiration from big city life or the yeasty New York jazz scene. The music reflects the peacefulness and the sometimes-volatile atmosphere of the heartland where she grew up. Memories of the small southwestern Minnesota town of Windom and its surrounding prairie inform most of the pieces in the collection. Side trips to New Guinea and Brazil and a tribute to a departed band member are consistent with the character of the world Schneider creates in eight compositions. She does not call The Thompson Fields a suite, but its unity of style and its mood of reflection would justify that designation.
Ted Kooser’s poem “November 18” inspired the piece Schneider calls “Walking By Flashlight.” The quiet dynamics of her orchestration support a solo by Scott Robinson on alto clarinet, an instrument seldom used in modern music. Robinson employs it with the intimacy the piece demands. Schneider’s longtime pianist Frank Kimbrough solos in the same mood. Kimbrough later shines with guitarist Lage Lund on the album’s title piece inspired by a farm near Windom owned by Schneider’s family friends the Thompsons. “The Monarch and the Milkweed” features trombonist Marshall Gilkes and flugelhornist Greg Gisbert. Subtle brush strokes painted into the soundscape by drummer Clarence Penn contrast with the intensity of Schneider’s orchestration. Superb engineering, mixing and post-production mastering enhance such nuances.
“Arbiters of Evolution,” the New Guinea excursion, reflects on the competitive displays of male birds-of-paradise. A big piece of orchestral impressionism packed with energy, it features long virtuosic solos by tenor saxophonist Donny McCaslin, and Robinson on baritone sax. The two then improvise exchanges suggesting the dazzling exhibitions that male birds perform as they compete for the attention of a female deciding on a mate. Schneider’s album notes describe how she was moved by film of those touching and funny avian performances. Her score and the band’s energy capture both aspects.
“Nimbus” recalls tension, fear and weird beauty in a part of the Midwest subject to storms that bring the sudden violence of tornadoesand the relief when one passes without leaving a trail of destruction. “A Potter’s Song” memorializes Laurie Frink (1951-2013), who was the Schneider orchestra’s lead trumpeter. Gary Versace is the soloist in the elegy, playing with taste unlikely to generate new accordion jokes. In other pieces, Schneider employs simple accordion lines by Versace as commentary or as artful contrast with the ensemble. One such instance is the introduction to “Home,” a thread of single notes from the accordion. The featured soloist, tenor saxophonist Rich Perry, enters with his pure tone, wafting on hymn-like orchestral chords as he and the rhythm section gather intensity. Schneider’s voicings of the orchestra’s bottom notes in this piece are a highlight of the album.
“Lembranca” is Schneider’s remembrance of the influential Brazilian musician Paulo Moura (1932-2010) and her visit with him to a Rio de Janeiro samba school where he was a hero. Trombonist Ryan Keberle and bassist Jay Anderson have lengthy solos; Keberle’s expansive, Anderson’s compelling in spite ofor perhaps because ofhis soft tone. Kimbrough and Versace play important roles in setting the temper of the piece. Penn’s drumming and the work of guest percussionist Rogerio Boccato impart the samba spirit. Schneider’s orchestration uses dynamics to build excitement, and then lets it subside slowly for a satisfying end to the piece and the album.
The Thompson Fields was a major project in these days when economic challenges make it difficultputting it mildlyto keep a big band together. artistShare fans made Schneider’s album possible through contributions. It would be lovely to think that public demand for music of this quality can guarantee its survival. But in what is still the world’s richest economy, all indicators seem to suggest that the future of serious large-scale creative works may well depend on gifts, whether through the small contributions of crowdfunding or the generosity of major donors.