Ambitious? How about depicting musically four basic elementsfire, water, earth, windand doing so with only four musicians. On its fourth recording, The Elements, the guitar-led quartet Madre Vaca endeavors to do exactly that, and in roughly forty-one minutes. Each of the album's four selections was written by a member of the group: "Fire" by drummer Benjamin Shorstein; "Water" by guitarist Jarrett Carter; "Earth" by bassist Thomas Milovac; "Wind" by pianist Jonah Pierre.
So how do they fare? That depends for the most part on one's frame of reference. Thematically, the quartet may as well be portraying the four seasons or the four horsemen of the apocalypse; it really makes no difference. In the end, it is simply four jazz musicians performing four compositions. Using that as a benchmark, they fare reasonably well, even though the album's jazz component has been lessened to some degree in the interest of "integrity," or adherence to the theme's essential purpose, and surfaces explicitly for the most part only on the opening "Fire" and closing "Wind."
"Wind," as represented here, produces as much heat as "Fire," which does not seem proper, even musically, as that is clearly not the case in real-life scenarios. Shorstein's "Fire," the longest track at almost fifteen minutes, is rather slow to ignite, ambling at last to its fiery up-tempo conclusion following able solos by all hands, starting with Carter and closing with Shorstein. "Water" flows slowly and deliberately, with Carter soloing nicely while the ensemble lends its support before Pierre plunges in to devise some interesting strokes of his own. "Earth" (which qualifies as an "element" only in the broadest possible terms) opens quietly before giving way to more powerful and tempestuous impulses as natural disasters intrude, underlined by Shorstein's muscular drumming and Carter's lithe guitar, leading at the end to serenity as exemplified by Milovac's bowed bass. After blowing in softly, "Wind" accelerates to gale force to amplify buoyant solos by Carter and Pierre and maintains its power through the windswept coda.
Ambitious? Yes and, by and large, successful musically if not thematically, which is irrelevant save to those who insist on "seeing" as well as hearing lyrical and harmonic nuances. To other listeners, it will simply be an above-average quartet date whose "message" may or may not be deemed essential.