What at face value sounds like a potential theoretical misfire or needless farce—see: Northeast Florida jazz musicians creating a concept album celebrating the Arthurian legends—is a surprising, welcomed and well-executed addition to local music. The Jacksonville-based jazz collective Madre Vaca have just released their 10-song Knights of the Round Table album, available as download and also a quality CD package with artwork by Andre Gruber.
Composed by drummer-composer Benjamin Shorstein, the ensemble digs deep into King Arthur myth and characters with some impressive madrigal-meets-late-Coltrane results. With “The Knights of the Round Table,” the 11-piece band transforms the castle Camelot into a batik-covered jazz loft. Arriving with the click of castanets, drums, bass, brass and piano delivering heralding melodies, a choir sings the names of the legendary knights, then follow this roll call with a series of topnotch solos. Drummer Shorstein and bassist Thomas Milovac hold down the fort throughout; saxophonist Juan Rollan goads Shorstein into some serious Coltrane-Elvin Jones dialogue, trumpeter Steve Strawley offers up some nice buttery Blue Note arpeggios, the harmonic choices of pianist Jonah Pierre are dense chordal blocks and fluid turns that assure us we are far from the staid melodies of Loewe and Lerner. As “Knights” slows its gallop, Milovac conjures up a tasty bass-solo farewell.
Madre Vaca are no strangers to conceptual music: their earlier release The Elements used the fundamental building blocks to explore the granular foundations of nature and matter. However, after listening to their latest, the question of “Why did you create a jazz album about King Arthur?” is quickly replaced with “What took you so long?”
Madre Vaca’s Knights of the Round Table is available for download or on CD via the group’s Bandcamp page here.