Trombonist Reginald Cyntje, a proud Virgin Islander, has become gradually less overt in his use of Caribbean musical components. The defining flavor of his first jazz album (2011’s Freedom’s Children: The Celebration), they’re now a subtle seasoning—one among many—in Elements of Life, his third and finest. That’s no small feat of restraint when three of his seven band members are Islanders and one of them plays the steel drum.
Cyntje is no less inspired by his native traditions than he once was; he just has a lot to say, which makes for complex, diverse creations. On his latest release, Cyntje’s interest is in the interrelation of the classical elements of nature and cycles of human life. What comes through on the album’s title track are palpable patterns of funk via a forthright percussive line from bassist Herman Burney; lyricism from Christie Dashiell’s bright, wordless vocals; and motivic improvisations from the rest of the band. It’s only when drummer Amin Gumbs solos that the dialect of his toms and rimshots crystallizes: “Elements of Life” is a calypso, albeit a spectacularly swinging one. So is the whole album.
But “Water” takes the opposite path: Pianist Allyn Johnson’s opening chords establish a cha-cha rhythm that’s later submerged in favor of a lazy, gliding melody from Cyntje and Dashiell (and glistening fills from steeldrummer Victor Provost). “Wind” does the same, but with a harder and more urgent Latin beat: Each soloist starts off in soft, languid tones until Burney’s relentless accents whip them into motion (though tenor saxophonist Brian Settles provides a striking contrast, letting Burney push his rhythmic velocity but refusing to yield his relaxed tone and dynamic). But even here, the feel is less about Afro-Caribbean dance and more about evoking the titular weather pattern in all its physical strength.
The human-to-nature relationship Cyntje explores has obvious spiritual dimensions, making mood the key takeaway and style a means to that end. In addition to an island aesthetic, the album includes frantic swing (“Fire,” “The Aftermath”) and even a funeral march (“March of the Trees”) to make its applicable points. Harmonic freedom is another important means here. In particular, the first three songs—“Elements of Life,” “Earth,” and “Sky”—veer into areas of dissonance. Johnson is crucial to making this work: His chord structures are open enough to allow for deviation, his ear rigorous enough to follow on the heels of all those journeys. It’s a skillfully nuanced technique, at once evoking chaos, ambiguity, and possibility. That’s an indispensable combination on “Sky,” a 12-and-a-half-minute cinematic montage of several days’ passing. It’s also on “Sky” that Cyntje finally calls out his Caribbean influences—in this case, reggae—not just overtly but specifically, alongside swing and funk, each capturing the vibe of one of those days.
It’s pedantic, no doubt, to suggest that Elements of Life heralds maturity for Cyntje, an artist who’s been active in D.C. for nearly 20 years. Yet its subtlety, confidence, and seamless integration of stylistic, technical, and emotional elements make that suggestion ring true.