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Review: Maria Schneider Orchestra’s ‘The Thompson Fields,’ Connections to the Natural World



“The Thompson Fields”


There’s a grand naturalist compulsion in Maria Schneider’s writing for large ensemble, and it has led her toward a more potent expression of her art. “The Thompson Fields,” the first album since 2007 to feature her namesake orchestra, teems with observant references to the pastoral world: prairies, exotic bird plumage, the dark gyre of a funnel cloud, the flutter of monarch butterflies.

Ms. Schneider, a composer and orchestrator of extravagant insight, has made these kinds of connections for a while. And as a conceptual device, it’s not a new story in jazz: Duke Ellington set a precedent for capturing the rhythms of life that Wynton Marsalis has diligently adapted to his own uses. But Ms. Schneider has her own trademark way of using timbre and harmony to bring a tactile presence to the dimensions of sound — and more impressively, of applying the same tools to illuminate emotional terrain.

Because she works at her own pace, she has had time to break in most of the album’s pieces, including the title track, a sweeping rumination featuring Lage Lund on guitar and Frank Kimbrough on piano, composed more than five years ago. “Walking by Flashlight,” the album’s overture, adapts a theme from her 2013 album “Winter Morning Walks” (ArtistShare), for chamber orchestra and soprano, which won three Grammy Awards in the classical field.

The orchestra, as a single breathing organism, is Ms. Schneider’s instrument, but she also puts a great deal of responsibility on her soloists.

So a track called “Arbiters of Evolution” becomes a swaggering concerto for the tenor saxophonist Donny McCaslin, the ensemble surging and receding behind him. Something similar happens with the alto saxophonist Steve Wilson on “Nimbus,” an evocation of heavy weather; and with Gary Versace, playing accordion on “A Potter’s Song,” dedicated to the memory of the trumpeter Laurie Frink, a longtime fixture of the band.

The album’s deluxe packaging, with its handsome photographs, illustrations and text, amplifies its brilliant musical ambitions and serves as a statement of principle for Ms. Schneider, a vocal critic of music streaming services. Compensation is her main argument, but the physical experience of music also seems like a factor — speaking of which, her orchestra will perform in the flesh at Birdland, from Tuesday through Saturday

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