Listening to Frank Kimbrough’s piano solo midway through the Maria Schneider Orchestra’s latest album, you’d be excused for picturing wind blowing through a field of wheat. For writers of instrumental music, subject matter is as likely as not personal, internal, or abstract; it’s “about” music as much as anything. Think Bach’s “The Art of the Fugue” or Charles Mingus’s “Folk Forms, No. 1.”
But multiple Grammy winner Schneider’s music unabashedly takes in and pays tribute to the physical world. So Kimbrough is evoking a real place in the wavelike figures of “The Thompson Fields” — specifically the unspoiled stretch of the Great Plains near Schneider’s hometown of Windom, Minn.
You can expect to hear a good chunk of “The Thompson Fields” when the Maria Schneider Orchestra takes the stage Saturday at the Newport Jazz Festival. Schneider — jazz’s nature poet — is particularly well-suited to the Fort Adams mainstage, with its dramatic sweeping vista of Newport Harbor and Narragansett Bay. Schneider is a passionate bird-watcher and environmentalist. The myriad harmonic hues and undulating rhythms of her extended pieces can evoke bird life, the experience of hang gliding off a Brazilian cliff, or those fields back in Minnesota.
For “The Thompson Fields,” Schneider found herself drawn back home, to animal and plant life, and to landscape. “The Monarch and the Milkweed,” a feature for trombonist Marshall Gilkes and Greg Gisbert on flugelhorn, was inspired by the delicate relationship between the title butterfly and the host environment on which it depends. You could know that or not, and still appreciate the musical panorama that unfolds in Schneider’s piece, from the rising melody of the main theme to the two distinctly-set solos, and the dramatic intertwining of those soloists in a climactic crescendo.
“I pictured each soloist as a person walking through a landscape and commenting on it,” Schneider says of “Monarch,” speaking by phone from her apartment in New York. Schneider generally writes in extended forms, with the musical landscape shifting from soloist to soloist. The idea, she says, is to make each solo integral to that evolving form — Gilkes in sweeping arcs of long tones against the rhythm section, Gisbert more introspective and bluesy, before an ecstatic release with the full band, a section of improvised counterpoint for the soloists, and an assuring recapitulation of the main theme.
Schneider describes trying to create “a trajectory of energy” in which the listener will be drawn not just to the solo but to the full dramatic context of the piece. As a composer, she says, the problem is “how to make the [improvised] solos do what you want them to do and yet be different every time, and surprise you and also be part of this development.”
To that end, she works individually with her band members to develop their parts and find the right colors. The solo instrument on “Walking by Flashlight,” for instance, is the alto clarinet — rarely heard in a solo context in any genre — played by multi-reedman and longtime bandmember Scott Robinson. “She asked, ‘What do you have that would sound good on this melody?’,” recalls Robinson. “She came over to the house and we tried things out.”
The piece is drawn from Schneider’s 2013 album “Winter Morning Walks,” settings of poems by Ted Kooser sung by Dawn Upshaw, which won three Grammy awards in the classical category. Here, the alto clarinet beautifully evokes Upshaw’s vocal line. Another piece, “Home,” dedicated to Newport impresario George Wein, was originally based on “Home on the Range,” but became an entirely different animal when Schneider heard tenor saxophonist Rich Perry’s improvisation.
Of course, there are times when Schneider simplifies her backgrounds so the soloists can take full flight — as in “Arbiters of Evolution,” in which Donny McCaslin’s tenor sax and Robinson’s baritone evoke exotic birds-of-paradise in full display, or “Nimbus,” in which a simple pedal point supports alto saxophonist Steve Wilson’s embodiment of a Midwest tornado. And then there’s “Lembranca,” more strictly musical in its evocation of a Rio carnival parade, and a tribute to the Brazilian musician Paulo Moura.
A trip to Brazil, in fact, inspired a key turning point in Schneider’s career, when she was in the middle of writing the music that became her 2000 album “Allegresse.” Describing herself as, until then, a composer bent on proving her seriousness, she loosened up on that trip, overwhelmed by the Brazilians’ “unashamed look at beauty, in their arts of all kinds.” Her love of nature, her interest in ecology (she’s on the administrative board of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology), has sometimes drawn her away from music, but she’s grown more at ease with the need to take time not directly related to music that can, nonetheless, inspire her art. “If you’re not living a life,” says Schneider, “you don’t have a heck of a lot to say.”
The Newport Jazz Festival (July 31-Aug. 2) has its share of crossover stars, such as trumpeter Chris Botti and Jon Batiste & Stay Human, both appearing Friday night at the glitzy International Tennis Hall of Fame at the Newport Casino. And there’s the murderers row of “name” acts on the Fort Adams mainstage Sunday: Dr. John, Arturo Sandoval, Jamie Cullum. But the appeal of Newport is in the breadth of its programming. This year, one of the most highly anticipated performances will be by Jack DeJohnette’s Made in Chicago (Saturday), featuring seminal players from his hometown’s transformative avant-garde, pianist Muhal Richard Abrams and saxophonists Roscoe Mitchell and Henry Threadgill. Meanwhile a younger player from the Chicago scene, the riveting alto saxophonist Matana Roberts, makes her Newport debut in Friday’s program of emerging artists with her provocative Coin Coin project, using music and text to examine America’s legacy of slavery.
Maria Schneider Orchestra
At: Newport Jazz Festival
(July 31-Aug.2), Fort Adams State Park, Newport, R.I., Saturday. Tickets: $40 (single day) to $155 (three-day pass); students $20. 800-745-3000, www.newportjazzfest.org
Jon Garelick can be reached at email@example.com.