It was much easier on us jazz critics when discs used to just barely break the half-hour mark. Jazz is often dense, complex music which requires a great deal of attention to decipher, and we've got piles of the stuff to get through. Which is why, as good as it isand it's often spectacularly goodUri Caine's Live at the Village Vanguard almost feels like a comeuppance. Weighing in at a whopping 76:46 minutes, longer by far than any one jazz set you're likely to see (indeed, the disc was culled from performances over three nights at the legendary venue), the disc is challenging, thrilling and, ultimately, exhausting.
One of jazz's most eclectically erudite players, Caine's appetite for musical forms and connections is voracious; he's done extensive reworkings of Mahler and Wagner, dipped deeply into Jewish traditionalism, and delved into just about everything elsehe consumes and processes all. (During his June week at the Village Vanguard during the JVC festival, he felt compelled to bring in a different band in each night.)
And so the trio disc with bassist Drew Gress and drummer Ben Perowsky is, as you would expect of the irrepressible, 48-year-old Caine, stylistically all over the map. The disc opens with an all-out tour de force, a dazzlingly resourceful romp through Wayne Shorter's "Nefertiti" (establishing definitively Caine's A-list, post bop keyboard credentials), then tiptoes into an emotional reading of the Jimmy van Heusen standard "All the Way," so painfully fragile in comparison to the brawling first number that the effect is dizzying.
And so it goes. The spiky, dynamic original "Stilletto" moves into a fractured, mid-tempo stride reading of another Van Heusen tune, "I Thought About You," which is followed by three more Caine compositions, including the dark, fascinating "Otello" and the molasses-slow, Vince Guaraldi-inflected blues "Go Deep," and then suddenly we're out dancing at high speed with Irving Berlin's baby, "Cheek to Cheek," so drastically overhauled you may be halfway into its nine-plus minutes before you realize what it is. And there's still two more Caine tunes to wade through before we're out: the gracefully '70s-funk-inflected "Most Wanted," and finally "BushWack," which plays ominously with the "Wedding March" before heading for the post bop hills.
Relentlessly inventive and completely idiosyncratic, Live at the Village Vanguard is a masterwork from a pianist at the very top of his gamejust be prepared to give it all the time it demands.
Personnel: Uri Caine: Piano;
Drew Gress: Bass;
Ben Perowsky: Drums.