Madre Vaca’s “Elements”

The Elements - Madre Vaca

THE ELEMENTS / SHORSTEIN: Fire. CARTER: Water. MILOVAC: Earth. PIERRE: Wind / Madre Vaca: Jarrett Carter, gtr; Jonah Pierre, pno; Thomas Milovac, bs; Benjamin Shorstein, dm / Madre Vaca Records MVR-010, also available at Bandcamp & Soundcloud

This CD, scheduled for release on June 12, is the fourth by Madre Vaca whose name means “Mother Cow” in English. I listened to and rather liked their jazz version of Schubert’s Winterreise, but this one is even more fascinating. Being a true collective, each of the four group members took a turn writing the basic scores for each of the four elements.

The liner notes tell us that “Each pi9ece stands on its own, but together they are a jazz symphony.” Of course, to imagine this one must stretch the definition of a symphony from a composition written for large forces, usually an orchestra, to one written for a quartet. I would rather refer to it as a large jazz chamber work, which does the music no disservice but, I think, defines it better.

Indeed, as one listens to the highly inventive music presented here, one is less conscious of the solo contributions, excellent as they are, so much as the overall structure of each piece in itself and the totality of the four movements put together. And this, in turn, is also not an insult to the music, even though most extended works, whether quartet or symphony, are generally written by one composer.

Describing the music herein is difficult not because the music is so complex that it defies such description—from a composition standpoint, each piece is made up of different motifs and rhythms knitted together by the musicians either as an ensemble or by the connecting solos—but because one must ideally notate it in order to convey the wonderful complexity heard in each piece. The one thing that struck me as a constant in this music was the intention of each musician to contribute to the whole rather than to grab attention by going into some outré “outside” solo, which each musician is clearly capable of doing.

And although all three of the melodic players (guitar, piano and bass) contribute excellent solos (and, occasionally, duo-improvisations or chase choruses), I must single out guitarist Jarrett Carter fir his refusal to limit his instrument to soft plucking. He, like Henry Robinett, is not afraid to play strong, gutsy passages when needed, and as the quartet’s lead “voice” he raises the others’ energy level up to his own. Whish isn’t to say that there aren’t some extraordinarily tender moments in these pieces—there are—but by using effective dynamics contrasts in addition to volume, tempo and rhythmic contrasts, they have made this quartet about as eloquent as any I’ve heard in a very long time.

Interestingly, Carter’s composition, Water, evolves into a conventionally swinging piece with Pierre’s piano solo as its centerpiece, but it, too eventually moves into other sections. Here, however, the basic themes are all tonal and uses an almost catchy melodic line of five notes repeated in various permutations. Milovac’s Earth opens with an irregular march tempo interrupted by bass lines played in suspended time. One might refer to this as the symphony’s (or quartet’s) slow movement although it, too, goes through several harmonic and rhythmic changes. It also includes a remarkable piano-guitar duet into which the drums enter, pulling the music slowly towards harsh, edgy rhythms with Pierre pounding dark chords on the piano. Then suddenly, at the 4:35 mark, it suddenly turns into a nice, medium-tempo swinger, but does not remain so; the tempo and intensity slowly increase as guitar and piano play a duo improvisation.

Perhaps it’s just me, but it seemed as though the last movement in this symphony, Pierre’s Wind, seemed the lightest and least complex music of all. Mind you, it’s not a bad piece, but the themes struck me as somewhat weak and it tended to ramble more than the previous three pieces. I’m speaking now as it being a piece of this multi-movement work and not necessarily as a stand-alone piece, but even in that respect it was far less complex, staying in mostly one chord (with small tonal modifications as it went along) and possibly because of this, Pierre’s solo on this track tended to fall back on predictable licks. Perhaps strengthening this piece in their future performances would help make it a more satisfying finale.

Nonetheless, The Elements is an excellent album containing mostly interesting, complex music, superbly conceived and played. I liked it very much.

—© 2021 Lynn René Bayley

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Read my book, From Baroque to Bop and Beyond: An extended and detailed guide to the intersection of classical music and jazz


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