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Uri Caine: Transformation, Improvisation and Context

By Published: October 9, 2006

AAJ: Yeah, the sensibility can be very different.

UC: The sensibility is different. The ability to, let's say, improvise over harmonic progressions or just play in a free, interactive way, is different. And so I think that that's another thing that's interesting about the group, because all the players have had to adapt from what they normally play, or what they often play, when they're playing this music. Even the deejay, who's sort of dealing in another world, has to think in a different way. It's not just a question of mixing some Mahler records and having us play against that, although that also can sound really interesting. It's about having to learn the music in a certain way, and knowing what to do and when to do it. But with a lot of it, I don't want to necessarily impose that much, because I feel this sort of pushmi-pullyu thing—where if I'm writing these arrangements where things are very specified, then there has to be a section where people can play in a way that's not so specified to balance it.

AAJ: I don't want to dwell too much on people's take on what you do, but I can't help but be curious about something. God knows jazz people can get uptight enough about anyone messing with what they call jazz—how does the classical establishment respond to these rearrangements and adaptations of their heroes' compositions?

UC: I think it's a mixed reaction. I think that I've gotten over-praised for certain elements of it, maybe because people from that world aren't so familiar with the fact of people that know how to improvise and transform things. Many people look at Mahler's music, and, really, all compositions, as things that are fixed, unchangeable—you can't change it. So they don't like it at all; they think that I'm either parodying it or somehow disrespecting it or they just don't like the idea of it at all. And I understand why people have those deep feelings about it, because people care very deeply. Those that do care that much are going to have strong opinions about whether this is a valid thing to do.

And also, there's that other reaction, which is "My god, this is incredible. So you really just sort of remember all the good and the bad and just keep on going your own way. Especially if you're going through a typical tour. One night you're playing in a Mahler festival where you have a lot of people listening in the audience who are maybe reading things into the music that either aren't there, or that you meant to do, or that you didn't mean to do. People argue, "Are you trying to say that Mahler was a Jewish martyr? All these things that come up. The next night you're playing at a jazz festival and the comment is, "wow, you have a deejay on stage. The next night you're playing at an avant-garde festival, and people are saying, "Oh, you're deconstructing this beautifully.

You know, that first Mahler CD won the best Mahler CD at this Mahler festival that's held every year in Toblach—one of the small towns he used as a summer home. Actually, it's called Dobbiaco—it's in Italy now. It used to be in Austria. And I wasn't there, but I heard that there was a tremendous amount of controversy that they picked it as one of the best CDs. So when we went to play there, we were expecting opposition—and the people really loved it. But then other times, we've played it in those types of contexts, and some people really don't like it; they get up. I've learned to sort of distance myself from it, because I want to just think about the music. But I do understand why people have different reactions and, again, everyone has the right to have those opinions.

I do save some of these reviews that people send me or that I've seen—ones that are so over the top where they're just hating it. I save them just to remind myself that, you know, everyone has their own take on it. I try to deal with it—or I'm trying to deal with it—much more on a musical level. I'm trying to try different things. Maybe not everything succeeds, but as musicians, we're having a really interesting time, and really a good time, playing it and trying to bring something else to the music. If there is any message to it, it's that that the music doesn't just belong to the self-appointed guardians of that music. That becomes very stiff after a certain point. I mean, certainly there are many musicians from all types of disciplines who have been influenced by Mahler and by other classical music that they enjoy. They shouldn't have to explain why they're treading on this ground. So it's one of those things where you have to sort of filter out the bad reactions and just go your own way.

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