Symphony Hall, Birmingham UK
Jazz doesn’t find its way into this concert hall all that often but last night it had its most fitting of jazz visitors – an orchestra of the very highest standard, led by and playing the music of jazz’s pre-eminent contemporary composer.
Understandably, the programme was dominated by the orchestra’s latest album, The Thompson Fields (ArtistShare), which distils the themes of home, landscape, nature, community and memory, all centred in the farmlands of Minnesota, as well as the natural world in all its interconnectedness and sometimes flamboyant eccentricity. But the concert opened with Green Piece, from the band’s first CD release, Evanescence, 21 years ago.
What was immediately striking – and it was a thought that would recur, culminating in the finale, Coming About, from the ’96 album of the same name – is how developed and distinctive Maria Schneider‘s jazz language has been from the start. That gorgeous layering of harmony, the crucial bed of cushioning trombones, the soaring themes, the sense of floating, the ability to blend big band punch with orchestral breadth of expression – they are all there, along with generous space for the soloists, in this case trombonist Ryan Keberle and baritone saxophonist Scott Robinson.
A Potter’s Song, a recent tune dedicated to the memory of one of the band’s original trumpeters, Laurie Frink, brought the band’s full, lush sound into more expansive widescreen behind Ron Oswanski‘s accordion (an instrument that, with its intimacy and adaptability, has become crucial to the “Schneider sound”). The importance of the musicians in the band, and their shared histories, was highlighted in the choice of trombonist Keith O’Quinn, a close friend of Frink’s, to play the song’s closing melody.
The Monarch And The Milkweed brought things to a different kind of intimate space, a butterfly and the plant that crucially nourishes it, in the form of Marshall Gilkes‘ trombone and Greg Gisbert‘s flugelhorn. The sheer beauty of their solos and their mastery at developing them so steadily, gently and profoundly against a backdrop of delicate horn shadings and then the rich bass of Jay Anderson and supporting guitar of Lage Lund, brought a shine to the eyes. Through the magic of the composer’s art the micro becomes macro and a butterfly and a weed end up pushing into even the high upper corners of this elegant concert hall.
Arbiters Of Evolution, the third in a row of pieces from The Thompson Fields, moved the scene to New Guinea and the astonishing mating dances of the birds-of-paradise there. There was a virtuoso performance from tenor saxophonist Donny McCaslin followed by an astounding display not only of power and flair but of wit and waywardness, from Robinson, again on bari, before the two “danced” and showed off together.
After the interval it was back to 1994 for a piece inspired by a Paul Klee picture, Dance You Monster To My Soft Song, and a chance for the band to show its darker, spikier side with Dave Pietro on alto and Mike Rodriguez out front drawing the strange floating man against the yellow.
The Thompson Fields‘ title tune put the spotlight firmly on the left of the stage with beautiful contributions from Lund and pianist Frank Kimbrough, another long-time Schneider associate. Yet again not only were the soloists exemplary but the way the band supported them was so subtly delicate at the entrance and then building to glorious sumptuousness – special mention of the four trombones in this particular instance.
Home featured, as have a number of bespoke pieces in the Schneider canon, stalwart tenor saxophonist Rich Perry, his breathier sound and romantic lyricism a lovely complement to the more muscular tone and constructions of McCaslin. Have the feelings that the word “home” conjures up, that mix of a return to familiarity and security with perhaps nostalgia for a past home and its existence in our memories, ever been more eloquently expressed?
Coming About – a song inspired by messing about on a boat on a small Minnesotan lake broadened again in music to take on the expanse and drama of the high seas – was introduced by Kimbrough who showed his surely inexhaustible talent for finding a fresh harmony or melodic phrase wherever he turns. Then Donny McCaslin took the baton and raced with it, up and up, further and further, urged on at every stage by drummer Johnathan Blake, until, judging by the grin that he broke into as he returned to his seat, he even ended up astonishing himself.
The encore was a heart-filling, life-enriching, restorative-brimming Sky Blue, Steve Wilson the sublime soprano soloist. Maria Schneider dedicated it to the people of Paris.
Of course, this is just a mostly descriptive account of what physically happened in Symphony Hall last night, and so hopelessly lacking in what it was really all about. What happened in the hearts and minds of the many other people who heard it is a much more complex and mysterious thing altogether, and not for me to know. Personally, all I can say is that there were many times during the evening when I wasn’t entirely sure if the tears threatening to well were the result of the pain inflicted by pinching myself to check that, after dreaming of this for so many years, it was actually happening, or that inexplicable emotional response to the most profound and beautiful music.
- For a review on The Thompson Fields go here.
- For Maria Schneider’s website, where you can buy her albums and see where she’s playing next, go here.
Categories: Live review