Maria Schneider Orchestra, The Thompson Fields

As readers of this space know, I'm a huge admirer of Maria Schneider's music, but her latest, The Thompson Fields (on the ArtistShare label), breaks through to a new level. It's her most ambitious recording, and her most accomplished; it places her in the pantheon of big-band composer-leaders, just below Ellington, Strayhorn, and Gil Evans at his very best; it's a masterpiece.

Schneider started out as Evans' assistant, as well as a student of Bob Brookmeyer's, and, especially in her first decade as a bandleader, their influences—those lush, stacked harmonies—were clear. Over time, her rhythms energized; her harmonies grew more complex; her melody lines took on more muscle, while retaining their airy lyricism. And her band! Her band got better with each season: so tight, so supple, and, seven or eight years ago, something clicked, the horn players turned into superb soloists, as well as top-notch ensemble musicians, and Schneider started writing pieces that built in more space for solos and brushed light strokes of color around them. (It's worth noting that seven of these 17 musicians have played in the band since Schneider started it 22 years ago.)

Her last two big-band records before this one, Concert in the Garden (2004) and Sky Blue (2007), saw Schneider exploring a Latin lilt and adding new instrumental flavors: an accordion, whimsical percussion, sometimes voices. In Winter Morning Walks (2013), which won three Grammys in the classical category, she set poetry to music—arranged for chamber orchestra—with Dawn Upshaw singing the libretto.

The Thompson Fields is a culmination of these two decades of evolution, rich and dense with harmonies, mixed moods, and shifting rhythms—denser, in some ways darker than usual—but always accessible, never losing the flow or the thread, and emotionally moving, sometimes spine-tingling, without lapsing into sentimentality.

It also marks a return to the Americana that streaked through her earlier work; much of this music was inspired by the fields and farmlands that she wandered, growing up in rural Minnesota (the title refers to fields owned by her neighbors, the Thompsons). But then, for the final track, she throws in a wild card, called "Lembranca," a spicy, syncopated remembrance of a samba-soaked night in Rio.

Her liner notes—interspersed in a lavish, 55-page hardbound book of text, photos, drawings, and credits that comes with the disc—muse on the nature of beauty, the wonders of nature, the mystery of the universe; and, amazingly, the music captures all of that, it lives up to its grand ambitions.

Ever since she moved to the artist-owned label ArtistShare, Schneider has lavished enormous care on production and post-production, and this new album is no exception. It was recorded at Avatar Studios, over a five-day period, by Brian Montgomery; mixed for many days more by Montgomery, Schneider, and co-producer Ryan Truesdell; then mastered by Gene Paul. During the sessions, Montgomery set up plenty of vintage mics: RCAs, Coles ribbons, Neumann U47s and U67s, as well as—on the piano and on solo reeds—a custom-modified Chinese microphone that he says sounds a lot like a U67. It's hardly an artifact of "purism": he recorded to 48 channels on HD ProTools at 24/88.2. But Montgomery—who had a hand on Donald Fagen's Morph the Cat, Herbie Hancock's The River, and served as assistant engineer on Schneider's Concert in the Garden—has nailed down the art of making digital manipulation seem reasonably real. The soundstage might not quite exude the side-to-side front-to-back luminosity of Concert in the Garden (engineered by David Baker, who died soon after) or Sky Blue (by Joe Ferla, who has since retired), but those are very high bars. By any other standard, this is a gorgeous album: spacious, detailed, dynamic, and warm.

The Maria Schneider Orchestra is playing at Birdland, in Midtown Manhattan, through June 6. I saw the early set on Tuesday, opening night, and—like every other time I've seen this band recent years, but more so—it was wondrous.

jokeka's picture

... but the artists share site kept telling me to fix things, then told me i submitted duplicate orders .. and no way to go back or fix. not conducive to sales, but i'll keep trying ... if Fred says it's good, it's good ... turns out there's a flat ban on use of my company's credit cards in NY because of fraud ... have to find another way, but no fault of the site. As Emily Latela said, "Never mind ..." Just found out its also on Amazon ... what isn't?

jtshaw's picture

Thanks for noting Bob Brookmeyer, whose legacy is secure whenever Maria Schneider sits down to write. One departure, I think, on The Thompson Fields, is that Schneider opens up more space for the soloists than Brookmeyer typically would.

And these soloists can play! Schneider has taken some criticism that her compositions are too lush, too simply melodic, etc. I've never thought that warranted at all, and several of the solos here take on an edge that seems novel. This is beautiful, challenging music. I've not been able to listen to it casually; it arrests my attention and compels me to dive deep.

As wonderful as her orchestra is (and it is superb), I do wonder what Ingrid Jensen might have brought to the sessions. She's played and soloed with them in the past, and she's recently been reaching some incredible peaks in her playing. Schneider and Jensen have always struck me as a pair destined to cross paths several times in their careers.

Finally, thanks for the information about the microphones and engineering. I felt certain they had to be tube microphones. Stereophile readers should pick up this CD to enjoy both the music and a wonderful recording. I plan to take my copy down to the local high-end store to hear it on their D'Agostino and Rockport system. This CD will sound as good as your system allows.

dalethorn's picture

Can't hear a sample, nothing works, no track listings, player doesn't work on iPad or Macbook Pro. The entire Maria Schneider site seems to be "buy this, buy now" with no possibility of hearing anything except (almost forgot) random tracks NOT from the Thompson Fields album. Even the "Contact" button does nothing. Boo, hiss.

Fred Kaplan's picture

Aw, poor you. This is how it used to be, y'know. ArtistShare is an artist-owned label. Like most artists, Schneider detests streaming services that provide no compensation to the creator. You want to listen? You gotta pay? In this case, it's worth it. If you don't want to take a $20 risk, your loss.

kentonjunkie's picture

Actually, there are massively long sound clips on Amazon. Not sure why such long clips are up for each song. So you can listen away and see if this CD is for you. Let me tell you, I just got mine and it is an extraordinary creative masterpiece. It's out of this world. My old huge Klipsch, and my McIntosh tube amp, have never ever been happier. I don't remember ever hearing a better album. And if you like great sound, don't do the dowload, do the CD, because it's better quality digital, and the CD cover is the best CD booklet I've ever seen period. It brings me back to my youth, and pouring over the old liner notes, like something by Leonard Feather. This CD is the REAL DEAL!!

dalethorn's picture

I've been looking for clips on Amazon and still can't find them. Been pressing a lot of buttons. Can you suggest where they are? Thanks.

cheri dorr's picture

You can listen to 1:29 of Walking by Flashlight on iTunes. Went to Birdland last week and saw her orchestra LIVE. wow.

dalethorn's picture

Being a Stereophile subscriber (i.e. customer) since 1973, and buying a lot of CDs based on reviews posted here, I just wanted to do a little evaluation first - not to prevent waste of money (why would I want to do that?), but to make better use of my music time. I don't listen to streaming services BTW - just pick and buy the CD.

kentonjunkie's picture

You're right; they're not there any more. They were 90 second clips, which is huge, as they are usually only 30 sec. Maybe they are recalibrating what they upload for a clip or something. It is nice to be able to listen before buying, I agree. But it's not going out on a limb to say this baby is going to be an all-time classic anyway, so not too much at risk here if you know her work. Anyway, I'd say check Amazon in 2 days; I am sure they will work out the problem with the clips. And the 2 extra downloads are also really fantastic. What a production! Bravo Ms. Schneider!!!

cheri dorr's picture

You can preorder and listen to one track for 1:29 (right now), Walking by Flashlight.

jimtavegia's picture

Music this great needs better than CD quality.

dalethorn's picture

Listened to the 90-second sample on iTunes. I suppose the quality would be OK for portable listening, but Easy Listening music isn't my cup of tea. Is this sample supposed to be representative of the album?

Fred Kaplan's picture

Believe me, this isn't "Easy Listening." This is very sophisticated music. This is, however, the problem with 30- or 90-second clips, and probably one reason Maria Schneider eschews them.