Madre Vaca Plays Schubert’s “Winterreise”

Madre-Vaca-Winterreise

SCHUBERT: Winterreise: Good Night (Güte nacht); The Weathervane (Die Wetterfahne); Frozen (Gefroren); Loneliness (Einsamkeit); The Gray Head (Der graue Kopf); The Crow (Die Krähe); Last Hope (Letzte Hoffnung); The Stormy Morning (Der stürmische Morgen); The Sun Dogs (Die Sonnenhunde); The Hurdy-Gurdy Man (Der Leiermann) / Madre Vaca: Steve Strawley, tpt; Lance Reed, tb; Juan Rollan, t-sax; Jonah Pierre,  pno; Jarrett Carter, gtr; Mike Perez, bs; Benjamin Shorstein, dm/arr; Milan Algoos, perc / Madre Vaca Records 006

Madre Vaca, a music collective that explores a wide variety of music, has truly crossed into another realm with this album, which presents 10 of the 24 songs of Schubert’s late, fataliastic song cycle Winterreise as jazz instrumentals. Despite a long history of jazz versions of classical music dating back to Jelly Roll Morton playing an improvised version of the “Miserere” from Verdi’s Il Trovatore circa 1898, most jazz versions of classical pieces stick to instrumental works from Gregorian chant to Stravinsky, with the overwhelming favorite composer being J.S. Bach, but saxophonist Joe Lovano did a tribute to Caruso several years ago, and here we are with a jazz arrangement of Schubert.

To say that I was skeptical at the outset would be putting it mildly, but by the time I hit the 1:38 mark in Good Night and heard pianist Jonah Pierre embark on his solo, I realized that Madre Vaca was very serious about this. They fully respected Schubert’s original song forms, not changing he melodic line (until the improvisations), rhythm or tempo, but rather appreciated having this harmonically rich music to use as a basis for solo and collective improvisation. It’s worth noting that, in many sections of this CD, the trumpet, trombone and sax improvise collectively, against one another, in the same chorus.

Interestingly, the arrangements were not written by any of the “top line” players in Madre Vaca or eve by pianist Pierre, but rather by drummer Benjamin Shorstein. The reason I find this interesting is that the scores clearly show a musical mind that is used to working in layers, meaning not only a layering of a top line on the harmony but the layering of individual voices within the ensemble. The majority of drummer-arrangers I’ve heard (but of course not all) focus more on the intertwining of various rhythms within an arrangement or composition. I can only assume that Shorstein decided to stick as closely to Schubert as he could because so much of the layering was already there in the very rich and complex piano part, one of the first piano accompaniments in a song cycle to actually dominate and surpass what was being sung.

Yet there are some surprising details in these scores, such as the guitarist playing what sounds like either a banjo or an acoustic guitar using hard, banjo-like strokes in Good Night, then switching to an electric organ-like sound in Loneliness. The latter also features a nice bass solo by Mike Perez as well as double-time trombone interjections by Lance Reed.

As the band moves deeper into the score, they do indeed change the underlying rhythm of some of the songs, turning Frozen into a modal tune, Loneliness into a quasi-Latin piece and Last Hope into a free jazz piece. By the time one reaches Loneliness, however, the classical listener may become disoriented, because by then Shorstein has indeed moved beyond the original rhythms to give us imaginative realizations of what Schubert wrote. It also simplifies the very complex piano writing, but in a way this was inevitable if improvisation was to happen. As complex as Milan Algoos’ bongo rhythms are in The Crow, for instance, Schubert’s original piano score was far more complex—plus, the rhythms would have run counter to what the bongos are playing—so it had to be trimmed. On The Sun Dogs, we suddenly revert to the original piano-and-voice score. The singer is unidentified, but I would assume it is pianist Pierre.

The stark, sparse sound of Schubert’s original Der Leiermann is transformed here into an uptempo Latin piece, and to my mind it is the one misstep in the entire album as it puts the music in an entirely different mood-universe from that which Schubert intended.

The question, as always in jazz versions of classical music, is who will want to buy this? A majority of classical listeners will reject it as sacrilege while a majority if jazz listeners won’t be the least interested in hearing it. When Darryl Brenzel’s Big Band recorded his jazz arrangement of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring more than a decade ago, it garnered good reviews and a bit of interest from classical critics, but the few jazz critics who reviewed the CD didn’t like it and Brenzel shared with me that he has a terrible time trying to find any venue willing to present the score, thus I’m afraid that this high imaginative CD will share the same fate.

Otherwise, this is a creative and quite interesting album, clearly worth hearing.

—© 2020 Lynn René Bayley

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