Throughout her illustrious career, multiple Grammy winner and perennial poll-winning jazz composer-arranger-bandleader Maria Schneider has demonstrated an uncanny ability to dredge up strong emotions in her music, conveying feelings of nostalgia and a sense of place in pieces like “Coming About” (title track of her 1996 album, written about her childhood memories of sailing with her father in their native Minnesota) or her autobiographical “The Pretty Road” (from 2007’s Sky Blue). A protégé of Gil Evans who won her first Grammy for 2004’s Concert in the Garden and her most recent Grammy for 2014’s Winter Morning Walks, Schneider says, “A lot of my stuff goes back to there. It’s not just the physical landscape; it’s sort of the emotional landscape as well. There’s a period there; it’s the 60s, early 70s. Everything from how things looked, the style of things to the sound of things, particularly records—that was an era. And everything about it made a strong impression on me.”
On The Thompson Fields, her latest recording for the Artistshare label and her first with her acclaimed 18-piece jazz orchestra in eight years, Schneider dips into a deep reservoir of nostalgic feelings on evocative pieces like “Walking by Flashlight,” “Home,” and especially the moving title track, a pastoral paean inspired by a trip to her hometown of Windom. “I go back every other year to the Thompson farm, for their big biennial Agro-Ecology Summit.
“The last time I went, I arrived a couple of days early to help Tony Thompson prepare things for the summit. One day he and I climbed to the top of their silo on a skinny, narrow metal ladder. We got up there and you could see so far! And the way the wind blew across the bean fields in waves, you could see ripples of different shades of green moving across the field. For me, it was so nostalgic seeing that open landscape from that vantage point. Along with that sight came these memories drifting in and out about the sense of community and the people and feeling the spirits of time and family and everything merging, crossing in this seemingly spacious vacuum. So I started writing a piece about that experience.”
Translating experiences like that into music reveals Schneider’s versatility as an arranger. “The trombones have those long tones in B that are like the waves coming across the bean fields,” she said, “and then [pianist] Frank Kimbrough is playing against that, on top of the wind, so to speak, in a different key, colliding against the trombones like all those memories and stories flooding in against that scene from up there.”
Another piece on the album, “Nimbus,” evokes the sensation of an oncoming storm over the Midwestern prairie. Saxophonist Steve Wilson captures the turbulence of the storm at its peak in his powerful alto solo. “I had actually written this before it was named,” she reveals. “My sister Kate heard it, and when she said, ‘Nimbus,’ because we learned all about those clouds from my dad.”
Schneider, a dedicated birdwatcher, likes to devote at least one song on each album to her fine feathered friends. On her epic 22-minute “Cerulean Skies” (which won a Grammy for Best Instrumental Composition) from 2007’s Sky Blue, she has members of the band imitating different species of birds and included a tape of the cerulean warbler’s call near the end of the piece. This time she enlists baritone saxophonist Scott Robinson and tenor saxophonist Donny McCaslin to mimic the swaggering mating dance of the exotic birds-of-paradise indigenous to New Guinea in their respective solos. As she writes in the liner notes of the beautiful CD package for The Thompson Fields (designed by Cheri Dorr and featuring stunning photos by Briene Lermitte), “Over the course of about 20 million years these species have evolved to have incredibly ornate plumage, as well as bizarre and highly entertaining behavioral displays. I attended a wonderful lecture where Ed Scholes referred to the female birds-of-paradise as the ‘arbiters of evolution.’ In that moment, I knew I’d found the title for this piece.”
About the choice of soloists for that piece, Schneider said, “The two of them have such identifiable and unique characteristics about their playing. Donny’s more flamboyant in his solo. He kind of reminds me of the western parotia. And Scott starts his solo like this little quivering bird with the little feathers, and he builds from there. He reminds me of the king bird-of-paradise. It’s like a male showing it off.”
“For me, music isn’t just this abstract thing,” Schneider concluded. “I think everybody’s music relates to their lives. It’s inescapable, and I like to share it.”
As it turns out, doing so wins her Grammies, critical accolades, and adoring audiences all over the world.