Just a few days after writing a review on jazz arrangements for Prokofiev, I’ve stumbled upon another CD in the review pile that takes classical compositions and arranges them for a jazz ensemble. In this case we’re talking about the eight-member “jazz collective” known as Madre Vaca and their new album Winterreise, which uses music from Franz Schubert to draw a complex and varied study of melancholia while using many different types of ensembles. Drummer-pianist Benjamin Shorstein arranged these pieces to take advantage of Madre Vaca’s ability to create a multitude of perspectives, with constantly changing moods and sounds.
Schubert based his own composition on 24 poems by Wilhelm Muller, which focus on “the story of a rejected man who left his beloved’s home to wander away in the middle of a winter night.” That sounds dreary and full of sadness, but Madre Vaca approaches this subject matter as a way to reflect on our emotions, and how we are sometimes led down a path that’s dark, scary and cold.
Through the use of such strong voices as saxophone (Juan Rollan), trumpet (Steve Strawley), trombone (Lance Reed) and guitar (Jarrett Carter), Madre Vaca seems determined to show us the lifelong route that led to that midnight stroll. This music isn’t about being depressed as much as it’s about taking everything we’ve learned and trying to apply that to the immediate and uncertain future. (The rest of Madre Vaca includes pianist Jonah Pierre, Mike Perez on bass and Milan Algood on percussion.)
In other words, Winterreise isn’t trying to compete in the Saddest Music in the World competition. Madre Vaca starts off with a lot of energy, even throwing in some energetic themes drawn from Hot Parisian Jazz to propel the narrative. All eight musicians are adventurous and skilled, so much so that the pure jazz explosions that punctuate this album are filled with renewal and optimism, not death and doom. The proof of this comes at the end of listening to Madre Vaca interpret this folklore and realizing that you’re not sad at all. I’m a fan of relentlessly sad music–it makes me feel human and alive–but this is no dirge. It is, however, one of the most imaginative mashes of jazz and classical music I’ve heard in quite a while.