Recording of September 2015: The Thompson Fields

Maria Schneider Orchestra: The Thompson Fields
Maria Schneider, composer, arranger, conductor; 18-piece orchestra
ArtistShare AS0137 (CD). 2015. Maria Schneider, Ryan Truesdell, prods.; Brian Montgomery, eng. DDD. TT: 77:25
Performance *****
Sonics ****

The world's leading figure in orchestral jazz has not released a jazz recording in eight years. In her liner notes, Maria Schneider says, "This album was funded by my ArtistShare fan base. Making a recording like this is becoming increasingly difficult and would now be impossible without the generous support of my many participants."

Today, big jazz bands rarely tour. Some are stable entities, but on a part-time basis. Most, like Schneider's, come together for projects, then go their separate ways. Yet against all odds, large-ensemble jazz survives because no other format offers its range of expression and its power.

Schneider worked with Gil Evans toward the end of his life, as copyist and collaborator. She is his direct artistic descendant. Like Evans, she uses orchestral colors and dynamics to devise dramatic narratives. To say that her work is the feminine version of Evans is too simple. Her touch is lighter and sometimes more whimsical, but her capacity for grandeur is just as credible. Her music is more intimate, more explicitly autobiographical.

She has said, "The foundation of my life is deeply embedded in the landscape." Her new album, The Thompson Fields, is a 77-minute tone poem to the land where she grew up, in southwestern Minnesota: its ever-changing light, its starkness, its spectacular skies, its extremes of weather. For Schneider, sensory perception and emotional memory are inextricable.

Its intermittent performance and recording schedule notwithstanding, Schneider's band has a 20-year history and a specific identity. It contains many of the best ensemble players in New York. Some, like trumpeters Greg Gisbert and Tony Kadleck, trombonists Keith O'Quinn and George Flynn, and bassist Jay Anderson, have been with Schneider from the beginning. The solo firepower is formidable. Saxophonist Donny McCaslin, trombonist Marshall Gilkes, guitarist Lage Lund, and pianist Frank Kimbrough are world-class improvisers. Saxophonists Rich Perry, Steve Wilson, and Scott Robinson are revered sidemen who thrive in the creative environment of a Schneider orchestra.

Individually and collectively, they have never sounded more cohesive or more passionate. The opening track is "Walking by Flashlight." Robinson portrays its wisp of melody on an obscure, lovely instrument: alto clarinet. The full ensemble slowly comes into being and looms behind Robinson like a choir made of wind. The next piece, "The Monarch and the Milkweed," explores one of Schneider's recurrent themes: the interdependence of living things in the natural world. It is necessarily intricate, beginning in delicacy, then gathering force to sweep and soar. Gilkes and Gisbert take deep, searching solos. "Arbiters of Evolution" pursues a related topic, but more aggressively.

Birds have long been muses for Schneider. (One of her best compositions, "Cerulean Skies," from Sky Blue, is about the miraculous fulfillment of bird migration.) The "arbiters" here are birds of paradise. McCaslin and Robinson, on tenor and baritone saxophones respectively, break clear, circle, and return.

The title track refers to the Thompson farm, owned by friends of the Schneider family. The hardcover CD booklet contains radiant color images of its fields, rutted lanes, and silos—the vistas of Schneider's childhood. The foldout photographs are by Briene Lermitte, who is as crucial to this project as the band's principal soloists. The yearning melody of "The Thompson Fields" is like memory itself, on the margins of the mind, coalescing to completion. The simple motif returns again and again, in the varied voices of different sections of the orchestra. Kimbrough and Lund, inspired, are wild and free within that melody.

"Home," a song that touches the personal and universal human implications of that term, has a single solo, a long ascent toward release and acceptance. It is Perry's moment. He is not famous, but he is one of the great tenor saxophone artists in jazz. "A Potter's Song" is a eulogy for the late Laurie Frink, a trumpeter and flugelhornist who was an original member of Schneider's orchestra. The accordion solo, by Gary Versace, is one part sadness, two parts tribute, three parts celebration.

The sonic quality of this album, recorded at Avatar Studios, in New York, by Brian Montgomery, is balanced, objective, and natural.

Schneider's management of such technical elements as harmonic shading and thematic modulation is impeccable. Far more important is her gift for creating music identical with emotion. Only 54, she has lived long enough to look back on her life through time's fading light, and to have known change, including the passing of much that she loved. Music is her means of holding on to what would otherwise be lost. It is everyone's hope. If you are able to cry over a piece of music, The Thompson Fields will make you cry. It is available exclusively at and—Thomas Conrad

ednazarko's picture

Disappointing that downloads are 320kps, and the highest res format is CD. I played in and toured in several big bands, and there's nothing quite as intensely rich and immersive as a big band in the zone. Played in big orchestras... no comparison.

Hope she releases a format that does justice to the intensity of the musical form.

dalethorn's picture

I tried listening to this months(?) ago, set it aside, tried again recently. I just can't get past the Easy Listening style. Maybe there's some magic that could change my perceptions, but it escapes me.

tonykaz's picture

Do reviewers ever reveal the A+ ? , or do they ever present a reviewed disc accurately ?

We should and could have a separate site with Albums individually listed. Each Album could be voted on by readers like us.

Stuff like Jazz at the Pawnshop would probably have the greatest number of Scored points.

Each Album would have an eventual rating of anywhere from F thru to A+ ( the Bob Katz system ) or it could have the Apple system of one thru 5 Stars.

That Record Site would become the Gold Standard for all us music buyers/collectors.

Hmm, I wonder if we could tack it onto Tyll's Site or would we have to have Jude running it on his Head-Fi.?

I'll ask Jude, if I run into him, he lives here in my area.

I'd get International participation, in droves, I'm guessing.

Something like Joker's IEM site type rating system is another option, kinda like 1 thru 10 in 4 or 5 categories.

Tony in Michigan

dalethorn's picture

I don't care about any of that - opinions are like, umm, you know. But I dig into a wide variety of genres and artists to obtain samples for testing hi-fi gear. And occasionally those samples prove very enjoyable. Listed below is a sampling of music I've used as references for one thing or another. But if you're in the older demographic, you may not appreciate some of the fresh and energetic tunes that permeate this list.

tonykaz's picture

Smarty Pants, I'm finishing my 7th Decade and I love all music.

Besides I own at least half this list, probably more as I don't quite recognize some of the way these works are listed. ( I suppose I just think of them in a different manner ).

I'm not a reviewer, only a music lover.

I don't see any Sol Gabetta

I think I see Anna Von Housewolf's Cermony

No Jazz at the Pawnshop

nor a great many superb recordings.

I made an attempt to print out your list but my Epson wanted 25 pages to complete the task, so I pass…, it is worthy though.

Anyway, thanks for writing back again,

I've been poking the Schiit boys with sharp sticks, I see you on their site.

Do you own any?

I'm hoping for some DAC insights outa the Tyll doins.

Tony in MIchigan

dalethorn's picture

I appreciate that some of my favorite music is recognized as worthy - I don't watch the grammys so I'm not exactly mainstream. For some reason the Schiit gear has passed me by, but it's good to know us Americans can actually make and sell electronics. DACs are an interesting animal for headphone users, in that the analog output can have sufficient voltage/power to drive the average headphone. It's similar to the old phono preamps with a headphone out, in that once the eq curve was applied you could drive the headphones in some cases without extra power-boost circuits. While there's a danger of losing dynamics via "soft clipping" with some of those little DACs, the basic sound from their "amps" is pretty good, since it's not a separate amp in the normal sense. Then you get into separates, and I tell people to consider: 1) Output jacks and wiring on your DAC, 2) Interconnect cables, and 3) Input jacks and wiring on your amp, be it a headphone amp or power amp/integrated amp. Those 3 things are opportunities for signal degradation, so make sure they're clean, made right, and well shielded. Then there's the power -- a laptop running on battery (not plugged into AC mains) and with a mini-DAC in the USB port is likely to be very clean, until you add something else. About the only thing that needs AC power are speakers and the power amp driving them, but if it were up to me and my speakers were fairly efficient, I'd consider rigging up some batteries, car batteries even, as an alternative to buying costly AC filters and $1000 power cables.

tonykaz's picture

DACs are an interesting item!

I think of them as Bit Transducers, Phono Carts. are mechanical transducers. I'm probably not "Spot-On" with that but…..

That Battery idea isn't far off any longer, my neighbor lady cuts her lawn with a Li-ion Lawnmower. My power tools are battery! And, of course, we have Li-ion Cars.

"An alternative" to AC filters & $1,000 Cables , hmm, do you have this stuff?, or just...

Schiit passing you by, hmm, I can't seem to find a replacement for my Asgard 2.

I'm happy with the Active Speaker designs, darn near all of em, even the big Meridians for mega bucks.

Personal audio has grown to a multi-billion dollar industry, I'm watching.

Tony in Michigan

ps. I had a hard time earning a buck with Audio, back in the 1980s

dalethorn's picture

I managed a computer store in Beverly Hills for 3 years. Very profitable as we were niche sellers with good corporate clients. But, the owners discovered something (mid-80's) called NDT, i.e. the predecessor to those wonderful 3-D radiation machines that examine your luggage in airports today, and they found some cheap but highly skilled programmer labor to create the computer code to generate the images. So they funneled all of the profits into that program, and eventually the store went away.

Now, you give me a consumer electronics store in that general area, carrying the products I believe in, and I can make you a millionaire - stat.

Venere 2's picture

Please stop. If you could do what you claim, you would be rich. Don't ask for hand outs.

tonykaz's picture

I no longer have the fire for making fortunes but I understand the sentiment.

I do have the energy to identify the Gamey Business Deals and dealers. My outfit thinks of us oldsters as "Gate-Keepers".

I'm out on a limb on legalizing all illegal drugs as Portugal has done, to good result. The Elephants think I'm a bit of a nutter. Still, it's my pet project now but it's nothing to do with any business, just a social position. Funny how I'm not being Black-Balled for it, as would be the case if we were back in the Cold War era. ( wishing for some Humbolt Crub-cake to Sell on Head-Fi as a performance improvement to any Headphone!! haha , I'd give Schiit Co. a run for their Money)

Tony in Michigan

Venere 2's picture

Don't listen to the naysayers. This is brilliant music!

dalethorn's picture

So is Mantovani.

tonykaz's picture

Are you drinking NyQuill?

Tony in Michigan

dalethorn's picture

I'd rather drink Nyquil than listen to this snoozer.

Venere 2's picture

Maybe Lady gaga or Katy Perry is more your cup of tea.

dalethorn's picture

I like Katy B for pop music, and a few who do vocals on EDM tracks. For the jazz ladies, I like (very selectively) a lady who sings with the Brookmeyer band (don't have the name handy), another who sings with George Kahn (also don't have the name), a few Diana Krall tracks - mostly from live in Paris, Claire Martin, Halie Loren, Heather Masse, Kate Parasdise, Roberta Gambarini, Sophie Milman, Venissa Santi, a few others. But straight-ahead jazz is my biggest pleasure for most listening - lots of it.

tonykaz's picture

I fell for that Album Cover.

Tony in MIchigan

dalethorn's picture

She looks more like someone who would say "Daddy, can I have the car to go on a date", than "Honey, let's take the car and go out tonight".

tonykaz's picture


Now I see her hands, they look older.

Tony in Michigan