Sometimes you have to see a piece of music live to understand it. Beyond the endless multitask and distractions while the album or the mp3 spins – do mp3s spin, or at least wish they do? – some music is so rich that it requires serious immersion to get a handle on it. Even by Maria Schneider‘s lofty standards, the big band jazz composer’s new album The Thompson Fields, with her Orchestra, is pretty amazing. This past evening on the podium at at Birdland, she led her big band through several of its lush, raptly beautiful, distantly angst-fueled numbers, holding the crowd rapt in the process. It was one of those nights when there’s a hush that lingers like an echo for a couple of seconds after the band winds up a song. If your wallet can handle it and you have a thing for epic, sweeping, unsellfconsciously deep music, she and the band are playing two sets at 8:30 and 11 PM on 44th Street through June 6.
It was almost funny hearing the orchestra open with Green Piece, which Schneider told the crowd was only her second large ensemble composition to be recorded. With its bustling, shapeshifting sheets of sound and an almost obligatory, strolling swing interlude midway through, it’s a period-perfect 1994 BMI Composers Workshop showpiece. Hardly a bad song, and the band played it with equal parts heft and precision, but it was as if Schneider was saying, “You liked me then? Here’s where I’m at now!”
And followed with an expansive, spellbinding take of The Monarch and the Milkweed, one of the standout tracks from the new album. Tenor saxophonist Donny McCaslin took centerstage as the inquisitive insect reveling in midwestern magnificence over a warmly labyrinthine backdrop that finally reached towering proportions. The album’s title track was the piece de resistance: what’s the uneasily glimmering interlude about four minutes in all about? It’s ghosts of the midwest, revenants from Schneider’s beloved Minnesota countryside, flickering, intimating their stories. Pianist Frank Kimbrough and guitarist Lage Lund whispered by themselves and then teamed to illuminate them, hitting an unexpected and absolutely chiling series of almost Balkan close harmonies midway through.
The unexpected treat – Schneider usually has one – was one of the bonus tracks [where the hell is that download card?] from the album, a blustery altered clave number lit up at the end by a lively, jauntily amusing trumpet exchange between Greg Gisbert and Mike Rodriguez. And what business does the album’s final, Brazilian-inflected track have in this suite of prairie pastorales? Peering in from the end of the bar, it turned out to be a seemingly endless series of modulations. How did Schneider get away with such an obvious trope? Very subtle shifts in the brass backdrop. For good measure, the song’s long, lustrous outro – if it’s fair to call four or five minutes an outro – made a pillowy setup for the nocturnal glimmer and gleam of the end of the show.