The Hills Are Alive: Maria Schneider Lets Memory Guide The Music The jazz artist's latest album gets its tone not from her current life in New York, but from a childhood spent surrounded by Minnesota farmland.

The Hills Are Alive: Maria Schneider Lets Memory Guide The Music

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Maria Schneider is a national treasure. The jazz orchestra she formed 20 years ago has proved her a worthy heir to greats like Duke Ellington and Gil Evans. Her new album, which fans and critics are calling her best, is called "The Thompson Fields."


RATH: The Thompsons were farmers and close friends with Maria Schneider's family when she was growing up in Minnesota. She lives in New York City now, but every couple of years she goes to visit one of their sons, Tony, on their old family farm.

MARIA SCHNEIDER: Tony and I climbed to the top of his silo. And we were looking out over this vast landscape of fields, and the wind was blowing and it was making these waves of dark and light green ripple across the fields. And standing there with Tony and looking back at our lives and his parents were gone - you know, it was kind of this feeling of generations passing and remembering this sense of community and the friends that are still there, friends that have gone. And I don't know, I was just taken by how rich a community can be in a seemingly very wide-open, almost empty-looking landscape.

RATH: There's just a gorgeous piano solo on this song from Frank Kimbrough that kind of - it gives a sense of the vastness, but it's also intimate at the same time somehow.


SCHNEIDER: I wanted his solo to capture that the horns in the band would be like the - kind of the waves of wind, and that his ideas over the top would be the stories kind of intersecting and sort of the spirit of the place.


RATH: You have this story about driving through your home state with your band mates. And they at first have a different kind of take on Minnesota and the land.

SCHNEIDER: Yeah, well, one of them first said oh, my God, it's just so bleak.


SCHNEIDER: You've been compared for obvious reasons to other jazz-composer arrangers like Duke Ellington or Gil Evans. For me, though, this album, particularly the song "Home," really evokes the great American composer Charles Ives.


SCHNEIDER: First of all, coming from a place like Windom, we didn't have a record store. Our records back then, when I grew up, were sold at the clothing store. And my teacher taught me both stride piano and also classical piano. She had been from Chicago. And from her I got this mixture of a love of classical, a love of kind of old-style jazz piano. And I never in my music felt that, you know, now I'm studying jazz, now I'm studying classical. To me it's just all American music.


RATH: You and I share a passion for bird and the birds of paradise, in particular. You have a nod to that in your track called "Arbiters of Evolution."

SCHNEIDER: Oh, I'm so excited.

RATH: For non-bird fans of yours, can you explain what's so amazing about the birds of paradise?

SCHNEIDER: Well, I learned about the birds of paradise from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. They did this wonderful thing - if you go to, you can see all these birds.

RATH: It's an awesome website. There's so much great stuff.

SCHNEIDER: It truly is. And the thing that's just incredible about these birds is they have very few predators in Papua New Guinea, where these birds are. And they have evolved over, I guess, millions of years through sexual selection. And the females apparently are attracted to very ornate plumage and dance and very wild displays. And so a lot of these birds - actually, the males shape-shift their bodies. Some of them look like they almost have tutus.

You can watch them in these videos. They clear a dance floor, and they do it under a low-lying branch. And the females all stand on the branch and look down. And then he opens his feathers like a skirt, like a tutu, and he has little ornaments on his head that he shakes and little iridescent plumage on his neck that he kind of shines up at them. And it's just spectacular to think how these birds evolved and the work that they go through to find a woman.


SCHNEIDER: What I was imagining in this piece is these two musicians - Donny McCaslin and Scott Robinson - imagining them like two species of birds.

RATH: The two male birds.

SCHNEIDER: Males, definitely - 'cause it's the males - the females tend to be a little drab.

RATH: You wanted them to, you know, strut and show off their beauty like a male bird of paradise?

SCHNEIDER: Well, sort of it. It's difficult to tell a musician that, and I sort of ease into that. And they hear me tell audiences about it. And I don't know how they feel about it, but they played spectacularly. So I think I am not sure if I want to know how they feel about it.


RATH: That's composer and bandleader Maria Schneider; her fantastic new album is called "The Thompson Fields." Maria, it was a treat speaking with you. Thank you.

SCHNEIDER: Thank you for having me on your show.


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