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Uri Caine: Transformation, Improvisation and Context

By Published: October 9, 2006

AAJ: Yes, invoked it.

UC: Exactly. Then to think about the implications of that, and then have a poet who's, in a way, making up poetry against the music, but dealing with other ways in contemporary American society of children being killed—like the four little girls in Alabama during the Civil Rights struggle, or just the general situation in American society where so many young people are killed at Columbine or in gang-related warfare. I also wanted to play with singers. I've played with Barbara Walker; she's a gospel singer from Philadelphia that I've known for a long time.

AAJ: Oh, yes, she sings "Sweat on the Shelf-Life record.

UC: Right, and she's also on The Goldberg Variations (Winter & Winter, 2000), singing some of the gospel songs. But in this case, when we were doing concerts in Germany, I got together with a German choir. I arranged the song "Only Love Beauty for them singing their part in German, the original Mahler, and she improvises. And the effect in a live performance was really emotional, so I wanted to include that on the CD. Actually, I think that song was recorded live; it was taken from a live performance, because when we did it, the crowd went so crazy—they just kept asking for an encore again, and again, and again. It really became a tearful thing, really. It was just a very emotional experience for the musicians and also for the audience. So a lot of those pieces are ones that we've played a lot. Some of them, not so much.

But the underlying aspect of that record is the idea of his songs. Since then, I've also done arrangements for—well, I haven't recorded these, but a couple of months ago, we played a version of Mahler's Sixth Symphony in the same hall in Essen, Germany where he premiered it exactly 100 years before. They'd asked us to do a version of the Sixth Symphony to sort of celebrate the 100-year anniversary. And that's a different type of challenge, to take a really long form and try to break that down and somehow integrate it into a group—so you can have improvisation and give the musicians a chance to play their stuff, but also somehow approximate the form that Mahler himself is having. Because one aspect of his music, especially in the longer pieces, is that there's a constant transformation. He'll take very simple elements that he introduces and then he's constantly developing them, repeating them in different forms and then repeating those for repetitions, and transforming them more. It's an aspect that some might find kind of exhausting, I suppose.

That challenge of having to deal with those longer forms is a different one from dealing with the song forms. And each sort of implies a different way that we can play them. As you were saying, it's sort of an ongoing thing that I've had the opportunity to play. And I think that also the group that I'm playing with, which is usually the septet on that record—we're all fundamentally playing as improvisers on some level, but the type of improvisations, and the feeling that we're getting from playing in that group is different from playing straight-ahead jazz. And that was really the thing that started me on it in the beginning—just to try to find different contexts for that type of improvisation to see if it could illuminate the music, and also give us a chance, as many jazz musicians do, of taking a text, a song, a structure, and then transforming it through improvisation.

Uri CaineAAJ: When you're dealing with voices, and a larger group like this one—there is improvisation, but there is also structure, sections, parts to this music. I'm curious as to how it's kept together. Are you conducting or cueing the musicians as you play?

UC: Well, we don't really have a conductor, but I think there are cues, and some parts of the music are strictly written out. I mean, over time, it does transform—people start playing their parts in a different way. The inflections develop and change. But it's pretty written out in some places, although there are sections that can be pretty free and open. And then there are sections that are either straight arrangements of the Mahler, just for a smaller group—since he wrote these pieces for a huge orchestra—or some sort of an approximation, like, let's say, the melody. Or the certain groove that's set up is continued, either through something that I've written, or, you know, telling three guys, "Okay, you play this part and then the other three people improvise. Or, "In this section, the deejay should go for this type of sound, and then we'll wait until he's done and then go into section A. There are different ways you can structure it. Sometimes it can be loose—but again, if you're playing with musicians that are really open-minded, you have a lot of flexibility. This is as opposed to how classical musicians play it. For them, a lot of this stuff that we take for granted as improvisers doesn't apply—it's really a different thing.

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