The first jazz album for eight years from (many would claim – and I among them) our greatest living jazz composer opens with the perfect linking piece between that last jazz album, Sky Blue (AS0065), and what came in between, Maria Schneider’s first recording of her classical compositions, Winter Morning Walks (AS0121).
It is Walking By Flashlight, which first appeared on Winter Morning Walks, the Ted Kooser poem of the title sung by the soprano Dawn Upshaw. Here the melody is taken by Scott Robinson on alto clarinet, as close an instrument to the human voice as you might get. It is set at the start against the piano of Frank Kimbrough, the bass of Jay Anderson and the accordion of Gary Versace, and Schneider’s signature sound is impossible to mistake.
And the link to Sky Blue? Well, apart from the musicians involved, it signals that The Thompson Fields will continue where Sky Blue left off, and where Winter Morning Walks also ventured, though in a less personal manner: that is, exploring in tandem both the natural world and autobiography, the personal experience of this wondrous flora and fauna-filled landscape about us. In Maria Schneider’s music its everyday – maybe even mundane – happenings and details are given, through intimate study and then through artistic “transmigration”, a transcendence and beauty that fills the heart and uplifts the spirit.
Walking By Flashlight is just the first five minutes of this album. There are seven more tracks, many of them generous in length, which explore other aspects of rural Minnesota, where Maria Schneider grew up, where The Thompson Fields still lie, where Home is, where the dramatic Nimbus fills the sky overhead, where The Monarch and the Milkweed, the butterfly and its food, are to be found.
When the themes are not sourced in Minnesota, they still have subject matter which links nature and personal history – Arbiters of Evolution refers to the mating rituals of birds-of-paradise in New Guinea, A Potter’s Song is dedicated to the late Laurie Frink, not only a trumpeter in Maria’s band but a dab hand at ceramics too, and Lembrança remembers another friend, the Brazilian musician Paulo Moura.
Wherever she looks Maria Schneider finds magic and wonder – and then is able to convey that magic and wonder to her listeners.
She has, as I mentioned, a highly personal sound in the instrumental textures she uses, in the harmonies she gives the instruments, in the moods she conjures from them. But it is also, as has become clear with each new release, a constantly evolving sound, ever expanding in its breadth and depth of emotion and description.
She also has a crack band of musicians, some of the finest to be found in that city of jazz riches, New York. Many have been with her for a long time, and she knows just how to use and develop their own personal artistry, too, whether it’s the rich romanticism of Robinson, heard not only on alto clarinet but also on baritone saxophone, the visceral power of tenor man Donny McCaslin, the delicate, timeless wheezing and fluting of Gary Versace’s accordion, or the muscular horn interaction between trombonist Marshall Gilkes and fluegelhorn player Greg Gilbert.
Maria Schneider is a ground-breaker in all she does, from the charts she writes to the way she breaks down borders between musical genres. She was also using the ArtistShare method of fan-financing her projects long before the term crowd-funding entered common parlance.
She breaks further new ground in The Thompson Fields. It’s her finest creation yet.
- The Maria Schneider Orchestra will be touring Europe in November and dates include the Cadogan Hall as part of the London Jazz Festival on Tuesday 17 November (more here), and Symphony Hall in Birmingham on Thursday 19 November (more here).
- For more information about the Maria Schneider Orchestra’s The Thompson Fields and to participate in the project through ArtistShare go here.
Categories: CD review