Many would concede that fusing classical music with jazz is like mixing oil and water, they just don’t coalesce all that well. In theory these two diametrical art forms just don’t share a common denominator or equalizer – end of story! Well, not entirely so, according to jazz pianist/composer Uri Caine who achieved critical success with his 1997 release titled, Primal Light while receiving the “Toblacher Komponierhauschen” award for the best Mahler CD of 1997. Here, Caine along with the creme de la creme of New York’s “downtown” jazz scene pursue Mahler once again on the 2 CD set Gustav Mahler in Toblach which was recorded live at the 1998 Gustav Mahler festival in Italy. Here, “The Uri Caine Ensemble” meld Mahler with straight-ahead jazz, free jazz and traditional Jewish motifs.
It is reported that Caine had immersed himself with Mahler’s music for over a year in order to score the music for a documentary on this late, great classical composer. Caine’s approach is certainly worthy and demands serious consideration yet a minor drawback here is the utilization of DJ Olive’s turntables and live electronics. The venerable DJ is fully capable and is a - much in demand session musician; however, this writer struggles to find the musical value of these intermittent backwashes of electronics and scratches within the context of a classical-Jewish traditional-jazz approach. However, these occurrences are spotty and should not detract from the overall significance of Caine’s ambitious arrangements and of course, the crafty sure-handed performances of the fine ensemble. Many of the bright spots on these 2 CDs emanate from the sparkling and thoroughly convicted soloing of trumpeter Ralph Alessi, alto saxophonist David Binney and virtuoso jazz violinist Mark Feldman. Other than the always spectacular Caine, Binney, Alessi, Feldman along with a pumped up rhythm section featuring the estimable bassist Mike Formanek and young dynamo drummer Jim Black - generate tons of excitement which is evident throughout. On Caine’s “Symphony no. 5, Funeral March”, Caine and Feldman coalesce as an avant-garde, neo-classical duo as trumpeter Ralph Alessi proclaims the choruses in stately fashion, followed by a dash of free-style jazz that segues into “I Often Think They Have Merely Gone Out! (from songs of the death of children). Here, alto saxophonist David Binney performs penetratingly bright choruses capped off by Alessi’s fluent yet somewhat majestic trumpet lines as the rhythm section pushes forth with verve and gusto amid tender, sonorous and melodic choruses. Caine closes out with a swinging and harmonically rich piano solo.
Many of these pieces intersect which emits a sense of continuity and swift development. “The Little Drummer Boy” features the somewhat solemn vocals of Aaron Bensoussan as this piece is something of a heterogeneous stylization of Jewish traditionalism, modern jazz and classical, featuring an explosive alto sax solo by David Binney. Caine’s personalized vision continues with the piece titled, “Symphony no. 5 Adagio” which is a loosely based classical interpretation that gradually evolves into a series of modern jazz motifs, as several distinct conversations come to fruition along with Caine’s skillful hybrid classical/jazz piano solo. Disc 2 features a twenty-six minute piece titled, “The Farewell (from the white song of the earth). On this opus, we are treated to more of Aaron Bensoussan’s near operatic quality vocals, melodic soloing from Alessi, fluctuating rhythms, contrasting dialogue, classical quotes, somber passages and the intermittent backwash of electronics which seem slightly out of place, yet others may find it to their liking!
Throughout, Caine and co. successfully merge disparate elements in meticulous yet thoroughly convincing fashion. There’s a lot going on under the hood, so to speak and if you’re not familiar with Mahler’s work, it shouldn’t matter as the ensemble maintain enough interest and melodrama to keep the listener satisfied! Recommended....* * * *
Uri Caine; Piano, Keyboards, Adaptations and Arrangements: Ralph Alessi; Trumpet: Aaron Bensoussan; Vocals, Oud: David Binney; Alto Saxophone: Jim Black; Drums: Mark Feldman; Violin: Michael Formanek; Acoustic Bass: DJ Olive; Turntables, Live Electronics.