I'll be the first to admit that jazz's treatment of classical music has a bad rap. To my mind, it's not so much the "stuffiness of the latter genre as it is the tendency to simply take a classical composition and "make it swing. What separates Uri Caine's work from other efforts is his ability to take the music to unique, inventive places while maintaining the integrity of the original piece. For this projectwhich was commissioned for Mozart's 250th birthdayCaine brings a cadre of tremendous players who share his penchant for shattering barriers.
Caine uses Mozart's Piano Sonata in C Major as his touchstone. Most listeners relate this piece to either Bugs Bunny cartoons or fifth-grade piano recitals, so the opening figure has the potential to generate both pleasure and horror. Once the melody is established, though, the unaccompanied Caine takes off on improvisational runs that tell the listener, "This ain't your grandfather's classical music! Caine revisits the piece twice moreas a mid-disc resting place, and as the project's denouement. In between these moments is one long, strange, event-filled trip.
"Symphony #40 in G Minor (1st Movement) unfolds like a surrealistic opera, thanks to a truly eclectic instrumental mix: Between Nguyên Lê's wild feedback, DJ Olive's otherworldly samples, and the swirling harmonic created by the bowing of Drew Gress and Joyce Hammann, you find yourself in the heart of a deep, dark, threatening forest filled with unnamed shadows and unbridled foreboding. Then Hammann introduces the original melody, and you are transported out of the woods and into a bright, sunny (and slightly chaotic) chamber concert. You don't stay long, though, as Caine sends the ensemble sailing in another dizzying direction with a solo that is both swinging and avant-garde.
Chris Speed's clarinet and Ralph Alessi's horn bring out the whimsy inherent in Mozart's music; they combine with Hammann to give Caine a stormy, elastic front line. Jim Black drives the music with an intensity that classical percussionists just can't provide, while Gress delivers the same quality work (in foundation and solo) he's provided to Fred Hersch and Ravi Coltrane. Lê and Olive give the proceedings a knife edge that slices through all preconceptions.
The contents of Olive's sample case deepen the overall undertone, morphing perception at will: the distant siren on "Symphony #40 in G Minor (1st Movement) seemed so real, I nearly pulled my car over to let the ambulance pass by. Olive overlays Balkan chants and drums onto the Turkish Rondo from "Piano Sonata in A Major (4th Movement), infusing the piece with an untamed, tribal vibe. Incomprehensible train-terminal announcements shake up a bluesy "Symphony #41 in C Major (2nd Movement) that benefits greatly from Lê's anarchic attack.
Plays Mozart is not for everybody, and the recording requires complete attention in order to fully appreciate it. If you're willing to make the effort, though, you'll hear the work of a master brilliantly revived by a great and kindred spirit. Classical music is "stuffy ? Stuff that!
Piano Sonata in C Major (1st Movement); Symphony #40 in G Minor (1st Movement); Symphony #41 in C Major
(2nd Movement); Clarinet Quintet in A Major (4th Movement); Piano Sonata in C Major (2nd Movement); Sinfonia
Concertante in E-flat Major (3rd Movement);
Uri Caine: piano; Joyce Hammann: violin; Chris Speed: clarinet; Ralph Alessi: trumpet; Nguy