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Uri Caine: Transformation, Improvisation and Context

By Published: October 9, 2006

AAJ: Are we talking about, say, a ten-piece?

UC: Something like that, or maybe even smaller than that. It all depends. I have music all ready for those types of groups. It's just a question of the economics and the time to make the CD that will come out in a timely way. We'll see what happens.

Oh, and incidentally, my next CD is a series of arrangements of Mozart's music that was just recorded at the Holland Festival in June.

AAJ: Are you doing less sideman work than you used to as a result of all these projects?

UC: I would say yes. Especially compared to when I first moved to New York, because then, that's all I was doing. I still play a lot with Dave Douglas and with other groups from time to time. When you have less time to do it and to be available, it maybe takes you out of that loop a little bit. I really like doing it, because that's the way that I came up playing. I like playing in bigger groups. But in the last couple of years, the answer would be yes. But I do do things with other people. And I have some stuff coming up with different musicians. I used to play in Don Byron's group all the time, and I haven't really been playing in his groups in the last few years. But we have a gig coming up at the Tel Aviv Jazz Festival playing duo—although given the political situation there now, I wonder if this gig will happen. I am doing a tour in a couple of months with a trumpet player from Italy named Paolo Fresu. He's really popular in Italy. We'll just be playing duets.

Another thing that I've done a lot more than I used to do is play solo.

AAJ: Right, you did a solo record called Solitaire that came out in 2001. This, then, is something you still pursue.

UC: I used to do that a lot when I was really just starting out, playing in bars, playing solo piano, doing that type of thing. Then I sort of got out of that; I ended up playing a lot more in groups, doing that thing. But since that record came out, I am doing it more. I do really enjoy it in a way, because there's total freedom, and in that setting I can play a lot of the different music from a lot of the different projects that I've done. But it's also sort of lonely. But I think I'll be doing a solo tour of England—something like ten concerts. And, you know, it's another way of doing your thing. I've been playing the piano since I was seven or eight years old, so it's still really a part of what I'm dealing with.

AAJ: There are a lot of Rhodes players who aren't particularly known for being piano players, and vice-versa. But you seem to be perceived pretty equally for doing both, or either. Do you have any preference as to instrument, or is it all just a matter of context?

UC: Well, it's certainly all in the context. Especially if you're a sideman. Then, people say, "It's an acoustic group; can you play piano? Or, "It's an electric group; can you play electric? That's one aspect of how people begin to think of you in those ways. When it's up to me, I've chosen both. I was never one of those people who thought that if you're a pianist, you can't and shouldn't play electronic instruments. I just looked at them as sort of different things, or different aspects of the same thing. But I also know that each of them has its own discipline. Especially the piano; that's something that I've really tried to work on, just because there are so many different aspects to it, so many things to deal with in terms of the sound qualities that you can get—touch, pedaling, all the different aspects of it that are really interesting to me. And ever since I started playing out there, even when I was playing straight-ahead jazz in Philadelphia, a lot of the clubs that I played in didn't have pianos, so I had to bring my Fender. That's how I started really playing a lot of Fender Rhodes, and not even in funk or electronic settings. Just in straight-ahead jazz settings where that was just the instrument that was there.

There are certain things that you can get on the electric piano that you can't get on the piano, and vice-versa. And rather than get into this thing—I remember back in the day, that was a really big argument, and a person would choose to play one and not another—I just think that you don't really have to make that choice. It's more a question of really researching, and practicing, and thinking about what every instrument has to offer. Those types of arguments are not really valid; it's more that in a certain context, electronics sound great, and likewise, acoustic piano. And often, both. It's not really a question of having to decide between one or another. You just really research both.

Uri CaineAAJ: You're a product of the Philly jazz scene, which has, I think, a reputation for swinging pretty hard, but may not be overly notorious for experimentation. You've always done what you pleased artistically. Do you think you had to leave Philadelphia to do what you do?

UC: Well, I wouldn't say I had to leave it. First of all, even when I was growing up, you had the Sun Ra crew that was really prominent in Philadelphia. Even among the straight-ahead jazz musicians, there were people like [bassist] Jymie Merritt, musicians that I encountered when I was younger who were always trying to break the boundaries. There was the legacy of Coltrane, which was very strong in the city. But you're right—there was a certain emphasis on certain aspects of music there like straight-ahead bebop, or even in the R&B scene, that certain Philly sound that defined it in many people's minds.

I moved to New York mostly because Philadelphia is 90 miles from New York, so the question became, for a lot of the musicians growing up, is it time to move to the big city and see if you can make it there? I wasn't so much leaving Philadelphia because I thought it was provincial or didn't have all these types of music. It's just that I started coming up to New York, and I would say more importantly, meeting musicians who were coming down to Philadelphia to play. And I would be, let's say, the rhythm section guy—part of the rhythm section. And, you know, many of them were encouraging me; they said, "man, you should move to New York, because not only is there a great variety of music there, but there's people from all over the world. When I starting going up to New York as a teenager, I saw that it was a different feeling there.

Certainly, when I first got here, it was not what I had expected. The paradox was that I was working a lot in Philadelphia, and didn't have to really do gigs to just survive. But when I first moved to New York, I was scuffling a lot, doing gigs that I probably would not have done in Philadelphia. But I was able to fall into certain scenes that needed keyboard players, and one of them was definitely the Knitting Factory scene. It was pretty open-ended and included a lot of improvised music, but had a lot of different people from different parts of the country and the world dealing with a lot of different types of music, trying to come up with another type of thing. I think that that type of feeling symbolized an openness to me that I really wanted to embrace. But I was also, at the same time, trying to play with more straight-ahead jazz musicians and also was playing with more electronic people. I mean, a lot of the stuff that I'm doing now was definitely based on meeting other musicians in New York who were trying to do the same type of thing.

I wouldn't say that New York is the only place that that's happening, because certainly there are so many other places in the world. I mean, Chicago, Paris—they all have this certain scene where you have all these types of things going on and people who are much more traditional and say, "this is what we do here." And other people who are breaking out of that and trying to be more inclusive. So in that sense, maybe New York was just that place for me because it's so close to Philadelphia. But I wouldn't say that I left Philly because I found it to be so limited. It was just that New York is just right up the New Jersey Turnpike, so it was no thing to try to live here and see what was going on.

Selected Discography

Dave Douglas, Meaning and Mystery (Greenleaf Music, 2006)
Mark O'Leary, Closure (Leo Records, 2005)
Joel Harrison, Harrison on Harrison: Jazz Explorations of George Harrison (HighNote, 2005)
Dave Douglas Quintet, Live at the Bimhuis (Greenleaf Music, 2005)
Uri Caine/Bedrock, Shelf-Life (Winter & Winter, 2005)
Uri Caine Trio, Live at the Village Vanguard (Winter & Winter, 2004)
Dave Douglas, Strange Liberation (Bluebird/RCA, 2004) Ben Perowsky, Camp Songs (Tzadik, 2003)
Uri Caine, Dark Flame (Winter & Winter, 2003)
François Carrier Trio with Uri Caine, All' Alba ( Justin Time, 2002)
Dave Binney, Balance (ACT, 2002)
Uri Caine & Concerto Köln, Diabelli Variations (Winter & Winter, 2002)
Dave Douglas, The Infinite (Bluebird/RCA, 2002)
Uri Caine, Bedrock (Winter & Winter, 2001)
Marty Ehrlich Quartet, Song (Koch, 2001)
Dave Binney, South (ACT, 2001)
Uri Caine, Solitaire (Winter & Winter, 2001)
Drew Gress, Spin & Drift (Premonition, 2001)
The Philadelphia Experiment, The Philadelphia Experiment (Ropeadope, 2001)
Uri Caine, Rio (Winter & Winter, 2001)
Don Byron, A Fine Line: Arias & Lieder (Blue Note, 2000)
Uri Caine Ensemble, The Goldberg Variations (Winter & Winter, 2000)
Dave Douglas, Soul on Soul (RCA Victor, 2000)
Uri Caine Ensemble/La Gaia Scienza, Love Fugue (Winter & Winter, 2000)
Uri Caine Ensemble, The Sidewalks of New York (Winter & Winter, 1999)
Zohar, Keter (Knitting Factory, 1999)
Uri Caine Ensemble, Gustav Mahler in Toblach: I Went Out This Morning Over the Countryside (Winter & Winter, 1999)
Frank London/Lorin Sklamberg/Uri Caine, Nigunim (Tzadik, 1998)
Peter Herborn, Large One (Jazzine, 1998)
Don Byron, Nu Blaxploitation (Blue Note, 1998)
Uri Caine Trio, Blue Wail (Winter & Winter, 1998)
Uri Caine Ensemble, Wagner e Venezia (Winter & Winter, 1997)
Dave Douglas, Stargazer (Arabesque, 1997)
Ruth Naomi Floyd, With New Eyes (Contour, 1997)
Uri Caine, Urlicht/Primal Light (Winter & Winter, 1997)
Randy Johnston, Somewhere in the Night (HighNote, 1997)
Mike Boone, Old Head (Encounter, 1996)
Don Byron, Bug Music (Nonesuch, 1996)
Gerry Gibbs Sextet, The Thrasher (Warner Bros., 1996)
Don Byron, No-Vibe Zone: Live at the Knitting Factory (Knitting Factory, 1996)
Terry Gibbs, Play That Song (Chiarascuro, 1996)
Uri Caine, Toys (JMT, 1995)
David Binney, The Luxury of Guessing (Audioquest, 1995)
Dave Douglas, In Our Lifetime (New World Records, 1995)
Mike Boone, Better Late Than Never (Encounter, 1994)
Ruth Naomi Floyd, Paradigms for Desperate Times (Contour, 1994)
Gust William Tsilis, Wood Music (Enja, 1993)
Uri Caine, Sphere Music (JMT, 1993)
Don Byron, Plays the Music of Mickey Katz (Elektra/Nonesuch, 1993)

Related Articles
Uri Caine (Concert Review, 2004)
Uri Caine's Bedrock 3 in Tampere (Concert Review, 2003)
Meet Uri Caine (Interview, 2002)

Photo Credits
Top Photo: Courtesy of AAJ Visual Arts Gallery
Second Photo: Jos L. Knaepen
Third Photo: Juan-Carlos Hernández
Bottom Photo: Bill Douthart

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