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The Astonishing Maria Schneider

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Jimmy and Dena Katz
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Maria Schneider

The most harmonious and beautiful jazz orchestral music of the year comes from Maria Schneider, an emotionally affecting composer, arranger, and bandleader, whose work is astonishing in its capacity to emotionally connect with this listener.

The Thompson Fields, her first recorded work in eight years, reunites her with the Maria Schneider Orchestra, her exemplary 18-piece ensemble, with triumphant solo turns by saxophonists Donny McCaslin, pianist Frank Kimbrough, guitarist Lage Lund, and Gary Versace on accordion.

The album’s title comes from a family farm in southwest Minnesota in an area where Schneider grew up and returns to for inspiration. The music evokes those amber waves of grain—soft, modulated brass passages, acoustic guitar fills (Lund), and, without a string section, a satisfying fullness with bassist Jay Anderson’s solos.

Schneider's hybrid of jazz and classical form is genuinely moving.

Schneider’s writing encompasses a spectrum of moods and feeling—lyrical, melodic, turbulent, touching—and she relies on the improvisational prowess of her soloists to promote her stories. “Nimbus” is named for the clouds that stretch to the horizon over flat farmland, highlighted by alto player Steve Wilson whose solo captures the intensity of a breaking storm. Lead baritone Scott Robinson is breathtaking on the serene tone poem, “Walking By Flashlight,” and trombonist Marshall Gilkes’ elongated shouts and murmurs artfully capture nature’s mystery on “The Monarch and The Milkweed.”

Don’t pass up the physical CD—it’s as sumptuously packaged as a hardbound book, fully annotated by Schneider and illustrated with spectacular photographs taken by BrienneLermitte at the Thompson farm. The prize-worthy book design is by Cheri Dorr.

Schneider’s hybrid of jazz and classical form is genuinely moving. Having had the privilege of seeing her perform this music with her orchestra at NYC’s Birdland in June and later absorbing its nuances on record, I have no doubt that Schneider is among the most significant composers of the 21st century.

This article is from the July 2015 edition of ICON Magazine, the only publication in the Greater Delaware Valley and beyond solely devoted to coverage of music, fine and performing arts, pop culture, and entertainment. More information.