The Maria Schneider Orchestra is on tour performing the Grammy-winning “Thompson Fields” this month, with six concerts on the West Coast and one in Minnesota. Is that merely a pit stop in Schneider’s home state?
“No, it’s the main event,” insisted the Windom-reared, New York-based darling of the jazz world, whose ensemble performs Thursday in St. Paul. “I’m so excited. Some of the Thompsons will be there and my family and some friends.”
“Thompson Fields,” her fan-funded 77-minute instrumental opus to nature, was inspired by her first 18 years living in southwestern Minnesota. There are pieces about butterflies, birds, clouds and the neighboring Thompson family farm — all specific to the Land of 10,000 Lakes.
“I didn’t set out to write a lot of music about home,” she said recently from her New York City apartment. “I never sit down and say ‘I’m going to write a piece about such and such’ and try to find the music. I started writing, and these pieces started to conjure up those images for me.”
Many of the songs were written on weekends on a piano at her “place in the country” in upstate New York, nearly two hours away from her Manhattan apartment.
“From our window, you see nothing but forests and valleys. It’s just a beautiful vista,” she said of her surrogate Up North place that she shares with her longtime partner, lawyer Mark Righter. “I’m doing much more birding. I’m out in nature. The fact that I was spending time doing the things I loved as a kid, that’s what brought me back. It didn’t occur to me until after I recorded the music that this was all musically about home.”
The 2015 album was several years in the making. She raised money from fans, commissions and patrons, then recorded the project with her 18-piece orchestra. She also put together an elaborate, full-color, 60-page book in which the CD is housed along with gorgeous photos, Audubon sketches, Schneider’s essays, a map of southwestern Minnesota and the names of all the fans who financed the project.
“The Thompson Fields” cost more than $200,000 to produce. She’s recently recouped her expenses.
“I’ve finally reached that point, which is pretty remarkable,” she said sounding both proud and exhausted. “It’s getting harder and harder. I will say this: I haven’t paid myself yet for years of work. It was such a time commitment.”
At least, the Maria Schneider Orchestra’s trip to Minnesota, Oregon and California will be a moneymaker. Of course, “it’s not easy.” Her agent put together a tour with no off nights and venues close enough on the West Coast — from Portland to San Diego — for the ensemble to travel by bus.
Each concert will probably have a slightly different feel because Schneider composes the music but allows her players to improvise on their solos.
“My music is more like storytelling,” she explained. “The soloists are following my story line but they’re telling that story in their own way and embellishing it in their own way and creating their own sense of drama. One thing I really appreciate from the guys in my band is they’re never satisfied playing the same thing twice.”
Left brain, right brain
Schneider, 56, is Minnesota practical. She is the uncommon artist whose left brain is as proficient as her right brain.
“I have developed the left brain more because you have to,” she said. “So many music schools are creating entrepreneurship programs. They know musicians can’t make it unless they think like a businessperson. You just have to.”
After earning a master’s degree from Eastman School of Music and moving to New York in 1985, she has figured out how to make a living in music, starting as a copyist to jazzman Gil Evans (who wrote charts for Sting). In 1992, she formed the Maria Schneider Orchestra. The group has recorded nine albums, including the last seven for ArtistShare, a fan-funded label. Schneider has also relied on commissions.
When soprano Dawn Upshaw was an artistic partner at the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, she commissioned Schneider to compose “Carlos Drummond de Andrade Stories,” which became part of Schneider’s 2013 album “Winter Morning Walks,” which led to Grammys for Upshaw (vocal performance), Schneider (classical composition) and the project’s engineer (best engineering).
In 2013, Schneider received an honorary doctorate from University of Minnesota, where she’d earned a bachelor’s degree in music (“I was really, really surprised”). When she was in school there, one of her professors encouraged the aspiring jazz composer to go see the U’s jazz band and write material for it.
Now her undergraduate college recognizes Schneider on a sidewalk corridor of obelisks honoring successful U of M grads. She missed the ceremony because of an ear infection that prevented her from flying so she hasn’t seen the plaque. It’s on her to-do list this week.
The Maria Schneider Orchestra in concert
When: 7:30 p.m. Thu.
Where: The O’Shaughnessy, St. Catherine University, 2004 Randolph Av., St. Paul.
Tickets: $35-$65. 651-690-6700 or oshag.stkate.edu