In a world filled with piano trios that are entrenched in furthering the impressionism of Bill Evans and Keith Jarrett, Uri Caine stands out as a pianist/composer whose reach is far broader. British reed player Tim Garland once described saxophonist Joe Lovano as someone who "looks forward and backwards simultaneously, covering the whole tradition, yet looking way, way forward at the same time." The same thing could be said about Caine. After a string of concept albums that have covered everything from adapting classical composers including Mahler, Bach and Schumann, to his own deeply personal takes on electronica and Brazilian music, Live at the Village Vanguard
is somehow refreshing by its lack of intention. Not that Caine's more loftily conceived projects haven't been both stimulating and progressive; but sometimes it can be revealing to hear what happens when faced with nothing more than a handful of tunes and an acutely sympathetic trio.
Opening with Wayne Shorter's "Nefertiti," Caine, bassist Drew Gress and drummer Ben Perowsky immediately establish a baseline for the whole set, an approach that accedes to convention while, at the same time, defying it. Rather than staidly repeating the signature motif at a relaxed tempo as a foundation for the soloists, Caine briefly introduces the song alone, barely alluding to the theme with a hint of Monk-like broken stride before the trio enters at a clip suggesting that, indeed, nothing is sacred. Allusion to stride, in fact, shows up more than once; Caine's introduction to "I Thought About You" manages to combine it with peppered shots of the absurd, resulting in a treatment that covers the past, present and future in one fell swoop.
Caine's knowledge has always been encyclopaedic, likely the reason that he has been such an in demand player since he emerged in the early '90s, supporting everything from Don Byron's klezmer explorations to Dave Douglas' current post-Miles quintet; it is no less so here, as he incorporates influences as wide as Monk, Bley, Tatum, Hancock and Peterson, all mixed down and regurgitated in a fashion that views these sources as nothing more than links in a chain that stretches into the future.
Tracks like "Stiletto" swing fast and hardPerowksy is on fire here, and for the entire setwhile "Otello" ties into Caine's classical experiments with a romantic theme that is given a sense of urgency played over, for the most part, a pedal tone firmly held down by Gress. "Go Deep" is bluer in colour, with Gress and Perowksy in solid agreement with Caine's more abstruse treatment.
Conceding that in order to move forward one must pay respect to one's roots, Caine and the trio deliver a set that is remarkably short on the predictable. Live at the Village Vanguard proves, once again, that Caine is an artist without compromise, even when placed in a more conventional setting.