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Uri Caine: Transformation, Improvisation and Context

By Published: October 9, 2006

AAJ: One thing that I love about Bedrock and the Shelf-Life record is that the tunes have quite a few different parts in them. The songs change; different things happen, and it's interesting and fun. For example, "Wolfowitz in Sheep's Clothing has a sparse, stuttering, almost dubby vibe, with a crunching funk groove, but switches into a more driving double-time electronic drum section farther on. How is something like this written? Does the group write collectively? Does it come out of improvising?

Uri CaineUC: It depends. A lot of the time, one person will bring something in that, when we start to play, becomes transformed. Other times, the pieces are sort of constructed out of improvisations and then fixed—so we find ourselves playing things that were originally improvised, or at least the feeling was improvised and we try to fix it into a different thing. But I think that that's an important thing—that this transformation, or progression, or moving into something else, just to give the feeling of momentum or direction, is important. Of course, a lot of times when you're dealing with groove music, it tends to stay in the same place. That is the structure of the piece, and it might have different sections, but, fundamentally, that's the unity in the piece.

But for us—I don't think that we're necessarily doing that all the time. We like to make a cleaner type of song form, but other times we want them to reflect that it started here and went there. For the whole authorship thing, we just decided from the beginning that we would always say that all three of us wrote it. Because of, in a way, the fluidity of how we're dealing with it in the first place. But some of those songs were really written by one person and then became transformed by the group. Other songs really have to do with us getting together and adding on to what other people have started, let's say. That would be one process. Or we just get together and start working on something together, adding different parts, and as time goes on, we think, "Okay, this part we don't need anymore. We should add this—we need this line here, we need another bass line here, we need another sound there. And it just grows by listening to what we've done and adding to it or changing it—and then, pretty soon, you have some type of form and then you think about whether or not that's going to be the way it is.

In a way, it can be so open-ended that making the CD becomes this thing of us having to decide. Whereas when we play live, we don't really have to decide. Things just sort of flow, and we want that to be that way. But on the other hand, because we've played together a lot, you get something that's very cue-based. It's a very cue-based music in the sense that if I press this sound, we know to play this song now. That doesn't mean we'll play the whole song; someone else can interrupt that with their sample, and then, boom—we're off into that song, and then we return to the first song, or we never return to the first song, or we take a long solo because we just feel like doing that, and then it never really goes back to the form. So I think that that type of flexibility is a good thing. Sometimes it doesn't always work! Sometimes we say to ourselves, "Wow, last night we were so free-form—let's try to come back more inside tonight. Then we'll say, "No, that was too organized; we don't want that, either. We're still always going back and forth between those two things.

AAJ: Do people dance to this music when you're playing?

UC: Well, we've had some really nice concerts. When we played the San Sebastian Jazz Festival on the beach, we had thousands of people dancing. Sometimes we're sort of playing in these environments where it seems more like a concert, or more like a jazz club, and chairs are set up. On this last tour in Europe, I saw a lot of people who were dancing. That depends on more than just the music sometimes. But if we say to people, "You can dance, I'm not sure that people in a certain jazz club who are there to hear the music wouldn't be confused. But some of the most memorable concerts that we've done have been in those types of situations where people were just going crazy. I mean, it's not necessarily dance music, but people in certain clubs definitely do respond to it in that way. And when we're booked in those types of situations, I do think that actually the concerts are better.

AAJ: Well, there is a physical quality to the music. But these are very delicate conditions—to dance or not to dance, to sit or to stand.

UC: Exactly. That's a thing that's different with the club and the situation. And it actually changes night by night. It's kind of similar to me to some of the classical situations that I've done—if you're being presented in an avant-garde festival, people are relating to what you're doing in a different way than if you're being presented, let's say, in a Bach festival where you're playing your Bach thing. The context has lot to do with the way you're being perceived.

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