'The Thompson Fields' Mixes Prairie Dreaming With A Big-Band Beat
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Composer Maria Schneider has been leading her own big band in New York since the early 1990s, and more recently has written for classical ensembles and soprano Dawn Upshaw. Schneider is originally from rural Minnesota. Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead says her new album takes her back home.
(SOUNDBITE OF MARIA SCHNEIDER ORCHESTRA SONG, "HOME")
KEVIN WHITEHEAD, BYLINE: Trombonist Marshall Gilkes with Maria Schneider's Orchestra. Those drawn out, wide-open background chords suggest her early mentor and inspiration, arranger Gil Evans. Wide-open spaces are partly the subject of Schneider's album, "The Thompson Fields." It's named for a neighbor's farm where she grew up, in the flatlands of southwest Minnesota. Schneider set out to capture the grandeur of the windswept bean fields, and she can do grandeur. But once in a while, the majesty gets a little too purple.
(SOUNDBITE OF MARIA SCHNEIDER ORCHESTRA SONG, "THE THOMPSON FIELDS")
WHITEHEAD: Maria Schneider's Orchestra. Gil Evans could go big like that, as on Miles Davis's "Sketches Of Spain," but he might undercut his grand gestures with bluesy undertones I sometimes miss in Schneider's music - but only sometimes.
Her composition "Nimbus" was inspired by the changing sky over the old Minnesota homestead. Soloist Steve Wilson, on alto sax, beats the bushes to flush out the wildlife. His busy, improvised line is balanced by sustained horn chords behind.
(SOUNDBITE OF MARIA SCHNEIDER ORCHESTRA SONG, "NIMBUS")
WHITEHEAD: Clarence Penn on drums, one of many longtime members of Maria Schneider's Orchestra. The composer likes slow developments. Her long, sweet "Arbiters Of Evolution" begins with a loping tune that recalls vintage Burt Bacharach. But where Burt would quickly move on to a contrasting line, Schneider lingers to pile on the variations. Gary Versace's chugging accordion adds a rustic touch.
(SOUNDBITE OF MARIA SCHNEIDER ORCHESTRA SONG, "ARBITERS OF EVOLUTION")
WHITEHEAD: The album "The Thompson Fields" draws out the contrast between Maria Schneider, the prairie dreamer watching the clouds, and the leader and conductor of a crack New York big band. The lavish crowd-funded package pushes the rural persona. The bound booklet includes Audubon reproductions and a photo essay of Schneider out on the farm. Maybe that's why the session's nastiest tune, "Dance You Monster To My Soft Song," is a download-only bonus track not on the CD. Country idles are great, but it can be good to get back to town where the action is.
(SOUNDBITE OF MARIA SCHNEIDER ORCHESTRA SONG, "DANCE YOU MONSTER TO MY SOFT SONG")
GROSS: Kevin Whitehead writes for Point of Departure and is the author of "Why Jazz?" He reviewed "The Thompson Fields" by the Maria Schneider Orchestra. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, Larry Wilmore returns. He's had to deal with some tragic stories since his satirical news program "The Nightly Show" premiered on Comedy Central in January. He recently marked the one-year anniversary of Ferguson.
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LARRY WILMORE: I mean, it's crazy how time flies when you're in a constant panic about getting shot by the cops.
GROSS: I'll talk with Wilmore about finding the show's voice, and his voice, tomorrow. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.