Some artists thread a consistent musical philosophy through everything they do, regardless of context, making it all part of a greater conceptual whole. Others are more chameleon-like, adapting seamlessly to the demands of the moment. Their very flexibility and malleability gives their music its central purpose. Still, in order to stand out, even the most versatile players need their own lens through which to filter such diversity.
Keyboardist Uri Caine is a chameleon. Since emerging on the New York scene in the early 1990s, he's played on projects led by clarinetist Don Byron ranging from the klezmer jazz of Plays the Music of Mickey Katz to the fusion/hip-hop mix of Nu Blaxploitation. He's been trumpeter Dave Douglas' keyboardist of choice on his Booker Little, Wayne Shorter, and Mary Lou Williams tributes, as well as Douglas' post-Miles fusion quintet, heard most recently on Strange Liberation. Caine's own projects have been even more unpredictablefrom last year's relatively straightforward trio date, Live at the Village Vanguard, to a series of innovative contemporary adaptations of classical composers like Wagner, Mahler, and Bach.
And yet, despite his ability to mold himself into virtually any context, he plies a personal musical aesthetic to refract projects as seemingly straightforward as his Thelonious Monk (Sphere Music) and Herbie Hancock (Toys) tributes, making them more than mere homage. Like Douglas, Caine finds ways to make all music his own. Still, when he released three records within a few short months in 2001-02 (the Latin-inflected Rio, the solo piano Solitaire, and the hip-hop-informed Bedrock), listeners were, not surprisingly, more than a little confused. Will the real Uri Caine please stand up?
Shelf-Life reconvenes the trio that recorded Bedrock, featuring bassist Tim Lefebvre and drummer Zach Danziger. It may not make any strides towards answering that core question, but it offers evidence that Caine's filtration of electronica, techno, drum-n-bass, and other contemporary conceits through his own quirky viewpoint was no one-off. If anything, the new disc stretches these elements even further. "Defenestration may be disco-samba, but Caine's seriously cheesy synthesizer tone and unbridled silliness make it one of a number of clear tongue-in-cheek moments on the disc.
Which isn't to say that there's not some serious music happening as well. The funk of "Wolfowitz in Sheep's Clothing and "On the Shelf echoes Headhunters and the up-tempo "Watch Out! pure soul, while "Oder sports a darker acoustic vibe, augmented by a pungent trumpet solo by Ralph Alessi. But throughout Shelf-Lifewhich also differentiates itself from Bedrock by guest appearances ranging from added instruments to programming and sonic reconstructionthere's a certain idiosyncratic, off-kilter feeling. The references may be readily discernable, but Caine's treatments are all his own.
Shelf-Life may not shed a whole lot of light on what Uri Caine is all about, but it's an engaging ride with visceral rhythms, multifarious textures, fine playing... and an appealing sense of the absurd.