Maria Schneider hasn't released a big band album in eight years. Sky Blue, which came out in 2007, was not only one of the best big band albums ever made, it ensured the notion that everything that Maria puts out, likely for the rest of her life, will be met with unique anticipation.
The Thompson Fields does not disappoint. An album covered in nostalgia – the composer essentially admits as much in the liner notes – it continues a remarkable string of successes that goes back 15 years to 2000's Allegresse, an album that signaled major change in the world of large jazz ensemble writing. The Thompson Fields perhaps doesn't make the immense leaps forward that were evident on her previous three albums, but the care and beauty that Schneider has put into this music is nearly unmatched in the jazz world today.
The album starts off with the only piece here that you may have heard before - “Walking by Flashlight,” which was a movement from a collaborative project Maria did with the famous singer Dawn Upshaw and the Australian Chamber Orchestra in 2012, Winter Morning Walks. This version presents very much like the other, with Scott Robinson, who played a secondary role on that album, taking over the melody on his clarinet. “Walking by Flashlight” sets the tone for this entire album: it is lush, understated, simplistically beautiful.
What follows is one of the album's more ambitious works, “The Monarch and the Milkweed.” Schneider, who is a passionate naturalist and environmentalist, states that this piece is a question about beauty: “What is it exactly, and why does it exist?” As Maria is responsible for some of the most beautiful music of the 21st century, it's intriguing to hear what she has to say. “The Monarch and the Milkweed” features a melancholy melody, a fiery solo from trombonist Marshall Gilkes, and ultimately one of this album's important aspects: a very personal solo from trumpeter Greg Gisbert.
The idea of “personal” big band music is an interesting one to me. Schneider has always entrusted her music to her soloists, something that I have always had great respect for. On this album, Maria does this just as much as ever, and actually incorporates a large amount of timeless space into her music – something that big band writers (myself included) seem afraid of. We got glimpses of this on past albums: the large piano transition in the “Three Romances” from Concert in the Garden and the middle sections of “The Pretty Road” and “Cerulean Skies” on Sky Blue. She takes this concept further on this album.
The title track, my personal favorite from this album, begins with a breathtaking guitar introduction by new guitarist Lage Lund, who brings a similar vibe but a slightly different sound than his predecessor Ben Monder. “The Thompson Fields” continues through several repetitions of a simple chorale theme – guitar, then piano, then full band, with Steve Wilson leading the chorale in a way that only he can. Here we see perhaps Schneider's greatest ability as a bandleader: to get the eighteen members of this band on an almost extrasensory level with each other. The band moves together through the pushes and pulls of these rubato sections so perfectly it's almost unbelievable. After another loose middle section featuring piano solo with waves of low chords from the band and another chorale, the piece settles into a new slow groove with Lage Lund playing a great solo, reminiscent of some of my favorite work of his with Eric Harland's Voyager. Here again is a sign of Schneider's trust in her band: after the trumpets fade out their long note, nobody other than the rhythm section plays for the last 2:45 of the track.
Schneider continues her habit of having songs to feature her favorite soloists: “Home” for Rich Perry, which, honestly, has a pretty similar vibe to his previous feature, “Rich's Piece” from Sky Blue. “Nimbus,” after a predictably stormy start, features some great playing from Steve Wilson, in a style far different from his big solo on the title track of Sky Blue. Gary Versace, whose accordion is quietly present throughout the whole album, which is a really unique sound for this band, takes the lead on the touching “A Potter's Song,” dedicated to trumpet player Laurie Frink, a former member of the band, who passed away last year. Ryan Keberle plays a fantastic trombone solo on “Lembrança," an entertaining piece with elements of Samba, reminding us of Maria's heavy Brazilian influences.
The last piece I'll mention is "Arbiters of Evolution," the longest track on the album, which really stands out from the rest. This tune is really like nothing else on this album, or her last two albums, for that matter. An aggressive yet playful almost-swing/shuffle groove propels this thing all the way through, minus another big open, free middle section. Donny McCaslin gets his big feature on this one, and he's the perfect guy to blow over something in this style. He and Scott Robinson have a great time impersonating the birds that the song is about (specifically, Schneider was thinking of Birds of Paradise when writing this, according to the liner notes). Hearing McCaslin and Robinson shriek as the band kicks up near the end really gives you an appreciation for the unique things that this band does.
The last thing I'll mention actually has nothing to do with the music - the packaging for this album is the best that I've ever seen. A beautiful booklet style CD case, with 50 or so pages of notes, photographs, and nature drawings. Seriously, spend the extra ten dollars or whatever to get a physical copy.
The Thompson Fields is very good - to me, it comes in just behind Sky Blue and Concert in the Garden, simply because of the massive leaps forward that those two albums made for big band music in general. The Thompson Fields doesn't quite have those massive leaps, and I do miss Ingrid Jensen, but it is Maria honing her craft and making all of us midwesterners feel nostalgic. 4-and-a-half out of 5 stars.