Mozart's "Piano Sonata in C Major is one of the most well-known compositions in the entire musical canon. Last month pianist Uri Caine strutted across the stage at New York City's Merkin Hall, took his seat and dove into the familiar piece with genteel precision. But quickly, under the influence of his classically trained, but jazz-infected fingers, the music turned into a hard swinging improvisation delivered with a laid-back attack and drizzled with elegance.
First and foremost, says Caine, he is a jazz musician, as Live At The Village Vanguard
(Winter&Winter, 2004), his latest trio record, can attest. But seven albums released over the past decadeeach dealing with some revered composer like Bach, Beethoven, Mahler, Schumann, Wagnerand now his latest, Uri Caine Ensemble Plays Mozart
(Winter&Winter, 2006), might lead one to believe otherwise. That he's working on music for the American Composer's Orchestra, the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra and an adaptation of Verdi's "Otello doesn't help his case. However, Caine is insistent that the orchestral music he creates relies on improvisation emerging from composition, keeping him rooted in jazz.
"Music is music, says the Philadelphia native who began studies with French pianist Bernard Peiffer at twelve. "When you talk about the things classical musicians talk about, you extract a lot of principles that help you with the skills you need as an improviser. You learn from thinking about composition.
Ten years ago when JMT Records asked Caine to put together a group and play adaptations of Mahler's music for a film they had made on the composer's life, he had no idea what a magnitude of productivity and societal provocation it would instigate. "I just meant it as an alternative because I like to play straight-ahead jazz and I like electronic music and I like to compose, but I also wanted to have something that combined structure with the challenge of improvising in a different way, he says.
After developing the music over eight months in 1996, he released Urlicht/Primal Light
(Winter&Winter, 1997). The album takes the majestic tragedy of the Austrian composer's turn-of-the-20th-Century symphonies and propels them into a terrain at once wildly bombastic and darkly reverent, with Joey Baron's drums, Dave Douglas' trumpet and a cast of twelve more including a cantor and a DJ.
The album won a best Mahler CD of the year award at the Mahler Festival in Toblach, Italy, but part of the audience walked out in protest during the performance. "I've had people say I should be arrested, he says. "Really harsh criticisms. If people hate it let them hate it. It doesn't change the way we act as musicians, in fact sometimes it makes you more defiant to keep finding your own way.
Drawing inspiration from Wendy Carlos' Switched-On Bach
, the 1968 Columbia album which introduced synthesizer to the baroque stage, Caine took on Bach's The Goldberg Variations
(Winter&Winter, 2000), realizing seventy-two variations and including forty-one musicians including clarinetist Don Byron, who helped launch Caine's international career in the early '90s. The first time Caine played at the Vanguard was with Byron. He broke a piano string. "I was so nervous and so 'Oh my god!' he recounts with an energetic snap. "But they said, 'Alright, just get the piano tuner to come and fix it.' It was a thrill! It was a dream come true! The first time I went to the Vanguard was when I was thirteen years old to hear the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Big Band.
Moving to New York after being comfortably entrenched in the Philadelphia scene, he hit every jam session and met as many musicians as possible. Overwhelmed by the magnitude of talent, Caine quickly cultivated a brisk, shimmering original style full of confidence and charm. As a teenager he developed his "third ear, a skill that helped him integrate into a group by hearing himself and the other players simultaneously. "[Drummer] Philly Joe [Jones] always talked about how, in a rhythm section, you don't have to play everything, you can let things turn, spin it, hit that chord, leave space and use that [third] ear to hear yourself in the group.
In 1998 Caine released Blue Wail
on Winter&Winter, with James Genus on bass and Ralph Peterson on drums, his third straight-ahead album as a leader after his 1993 JMT debut, Sphere Music
, which included a couple Thelonious Monk tunes amongst Caine's original compositions; and Toys
(JMT, 1996), which interspersed Herbie Hancock music with his own. A few years later he formed a trio with bassist Drew Gress and drummer Ben Perowsky. Caine's group Bedrock, with bassist Tim Lefebvre and drummer Zach Danziger brings his music into a futuristic forum where electronic sounds mix with Fender Rhodes.