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Live Reviews

Uri Caine

By Published: March 8, 2004
Unfortunately bassist Steve Beskrone seemed quite overwhelmed when challenged to construct anything more than a walking bass line outside the context of the blues. During bluesy numbers, he slithered up and down the fingerboard with apparent ease—but during the rest of the set he often fixated on the root and basic triadic harmony. Portions of freeform group improvisation were somewhat soiled by his inability to assimilate into context. Much of his playing during unplanned moments relied upon a weak slide, where he simply moved his left hand up the fingerboard to the note which specified the proper harmony. (In other words, he appeared not to "hear" things enough in advance to leap in and join Caine, let alone propel the group or offer inventive counterpoint.) And Beskrone also had an unfortunately dull sense of rhythm. In my experience, a lot of the spice in a piano trio comes from the relationship of the bassist not just with the piano but also with the drums. There was a shortage of the former and a downright drought of the latter.

But that didn't stop drummer Ben Perowsky from exploring his entire repertoire, from straight-up minimalist funk to ching-a-ching swing and crashing free splashes, as well as everything in between. In fact, the real excitement of the show came from his dynamic work at the drum kit. Perowsky is mostly a pattern drummer: he assembles rhythmic units, repeating them as necessary, and switching them around just as rapidly and smoothly as he desires. Not a busy drummer, he avoids the pitfall of many of his colleagues and plays only the notes that are necessary to make his point. (During funk episodes, for example, he limited himself to regular hi-hat timekeeping with bass-and-snare interplay. Meanwhile, he restlessly pounded his heel against the floor and danced around in his chair.)

To keep up the variety, Caine employed a number of approaches to a collection of different types of tunes. (I'm sorry to say I can't offer any song titles—not that Caine made much use of his microphone anyway—but they ranged from standards to a jazzed-up patriotic hymn to blues- and spiritual-inspired numbers.) His introductions and codas offered undiluted evidence of his improvisational prowess. But while a given tune was in progress, he mostly stuck to the straight and narrow, offering a personal yet simplified style of play. (Perhaps to keep the bassist in the action?)

A lot of the time Caine sounded like Ahmad Jamal, with regular interplay between almost-"out" melodies and a well-grounded rhythmic foundation. At others he recalled the introspective harmonic richness of Maiden Voyage-era Herbie Hancock. And during the bluesier, funkier numbers his playing bore a distant resemblance to the punchy play of John Medeski. But the danger of making these comparisons, of course, is to deny Caine his own signature sonic palette. Caine's personal conception of rhythm and harmony, in particular, bears close attention.

The real excitement during the show came from Caine's interaction with Perowsky. Reminiscent of the give-and-take of Mengelberg with Bennink, but funked up a notch and somewhat less indulgent, the two players constantly competed for the leading edge. When Caine's solos reached an apparent peak of intensity, Perowsky would throw in a couple punches to the tom and crash forward on the cymbals, compelling the pianist to take yet one more step up. But at other times, when Caine reached a meaningful conclusion to his melodic statements, Perowsky would immediately lie back and play a relaxed swing.

The two players traded fours in a creatively subversive manner toward the end of the show. Perowsky often used his time to assert threes and fives and convert a simple straight-ahead rhythm into an entirely different species. Just as you were beginning to accept the new rhythmic reality, the other two players would leap back in and return to normalcy, right on time. And Perowsky would play along.

Caine also played the game in reverse, trying to out-do the drummer in a friendly but subversive way. He played blocky rhythmic chords to establish his own patterns, which at the point of exchange might be accepted or denied by Perowsky, as he saw fit. Since Perowsky is, as I mentioned above, mostly a pattern drummer, he thrives on building and juggling blocks of time. The give-and-take between him and the pianist had both players concentrating on their precious common ground while deviously playing tricks to redefine it. (Unfortunately the bassist had little to contribute to these exchanges, but he just as well stayed out of the action while they were going on.)

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