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Uri Caine: Transformation, Improvisation and Context


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With some of the musical projects that I
Uri CaineKeyboardist/composer Uri Caine was born and raised in Philadelphia. He began playing piano at an early age, and, while still a Philadephian, played with jazz leaders like drummer "Phillie Joe Jones, bassist Jymie Merritt and trumpeter Johnny Coles. While attending the University of Pennsylvania, he studied composition with George Crumb and George Rochberg. Caine soon moved to New York City, and while he describes his early period there as "scuffling, he quickly gravitated towards the city's burgeoning downtown improvisational scenes—most significantly, the one occurring at the Knitting Factory. Soon Caine was playing as a sideman with the likes of clarinetist Don Byron and trumpeter Dave Douglas.

Caine's an extremely well-rounded player with an effortlessly quick improvising wit, and his multi-stylistic musical sensibility and his mastery of both acoustic piano and Fender Rhodes makes him a desirable addition to just about any group. But he's also a composer and arranger of tremendous imagination, with a work ethic to match—which is why his 1993 JMT recording debut Sphere Music has been followed by 15 other CDs (the vast majority on the Winter & Winter imprint, with which he's had a long association) that cover an enormous stylistic range, from the jazz-octet audacity of Toys (JMT, 1996) to the Mahler-rearranging Urlicht/Primal Light (Winter & Winter, 1997) to the solo piano of Solitaire (Winter & Winter, 2002) to the electric-groove genre-mixing Shelf-Life (Winter & Winter, 2005).

Caine's work is marked by a desire to re-contextualize and re-approach musical genres, and often, to introduce—or reintroduce—improvisation where it is not ordinarily found, as in his many so-called "remixes of classical composers such as Bach, Beethoven and Mahler, and in his group Bedrock's rethinking of electric groove styles. Caine's work as a leader—as a composer, as an arranger, as a bandleader—has considerably reduced his time to play in other musicians' bands (as you read this, he's probably on a plane flying from one project to another), although he is still a working member of Dave Douglas' Quintet. It was at a Chicago gig by Douglas' quintet that I met Caine; he was extremely warm and hilariously anecdotal—he was, and is, a pretty likable guy. When I phoned him in New York a few months later, he was thoughtful, expansive, and, above all, patient, as I queried him about the seemingly endless number of projects he's worked on lately.

All About Jazz: You've got several different ongoing bands and projects that coexist in your career. Let's talk about some of your recent records and groups and make sure we have a lot of time at the end for what you've been doing lately.

Your newest CD is Shelf-Life, the sophomore record by your group Bedrock, which consists of you, drummer Zach Danziger and bassist/guitarist Tim Lefebvre. You play Fender Rhodes and a host of other keyboards in this band, and the group explores a lot of different groove styles—there's all kinds of electronica in there, R&B, deep funk and outright four-to-the-floor disco. The pieces are composed collectively, and this is an ongoing band; you were gigging in Europe last month.

Uri Caine: Right. We just came back from a tour this summer.

AAJ: Tell me how this group came about, and tell me about Tim and Zach—what they add to the whole.

UC: I'm trying to remember exactly when it was we met—probably in the late nineties. There were several clubs in New York City where musicians were getting together to improvise using a lot of electronic grooves. The Knitting Factory Tap Bar had these open jams. There were some other clubs too, but I think that's where we really met and started playing. Actually, the first CD that we really worked together on was The Goldberg Variations, which was in 2000—I worked with Zach and Tim on some of the Bach arrangements. The first Bedrock record we did in 2001 was sort of the culmination of us playing together; we decided to go in the studio and try to sort of put it down on tape and see what we could do with that. And since then, we've been playing pretty steadily, either touring in Europe or playing in New York. Mostly playing in New York.

I think that the vibe in the group has to do with not only how we're playing together, but how we're using our laptop computers. Because not only do we play together, improvise and compose stuff together, and then manipulate and change it through computers—but we also, like many other musicians today, create this music in our bedroom studios and then try to take it to another level by combining the aspect of live playing, live improvisation, with those tools in the electronic computer studio. The studio can change it, transform it, etc., etc. Zach and Tim play together a lot; they have a group called Boomish.

I guess the thing that makes it really interesting to play is that we are able to go back and forth between a sort of spontaneous improvisation and things that we've all worked out in our computers using programs like Logic and Ableton Live. These programs allow you to sample many sounds, and change sounds, and—even in a live performance—to cue different sequences and improvise with that. I'm really interested in the whole idea of combining structure with improvisation; the structure of the group has a lot to do with the type of samples that we all have in our computers that we cue to try to make structures out of the songs. Actually, a lot of the stuff that we do we can't even record, because it uses copyrighted material. But if we're sampling things like Blood, Sweat & Tears, or French chanson singers, or parts of dialogue from politicians, or folk musicians from around the world—it gives a wide sonic palate to combine with playing. And, as you said, a lot of it has to do with dealing with different grooves, and that's sort of the other underlying structure. Especially on Shelf-Life—more so than on Bedrock (Winter & Winter, 2002). There are a lot of references to other types of grooves that we grew up with—everything from television game shows to particular types of soundtrack music. It's sort of a combination of older music with a more improvisatory way of dealing with it.

Again, I think this is something that many musicians today are doing, where you have this ability to sort of combine all these sonic worlds together. I would also say that it's really a fun group to play with, because in a way, we can combine a lot of enthusiasms that we have for different types of music. But when we play together, a lot of time it's pretty unpredictable. The groove element is very strong, and that sort of allows us to act as a basic rhythm section for other people that we invite in to play, if we want to do that. Last week we did a gig at the 55 Bar. So the first set we played was our stuff as a trio, but then, it's interesting—a lot of musicians came, be they saxophone players or vocalists or other electronic laptop musicians, and joined us in the second set. So we're functioning both as a rhythm section for that sort of thing and also doing our own thing as a trio. So that also fits comfortably with the type of experiences we've all had as people that play as parts of functioning rhythm sections in larger groups, but also as our own group. So hopefully, it will continue; we have some other concerts and tours coming up and hopefully we'll be able to record another record. We have a lot of material, some of which—as I said before—is sort of hard to put out there because we'd have to spend a fortune trying to clear some of these samples. When we play live, we're not as worried about that.

On the other hand, we're all working with all these programs that really allow a lot of flexibility, and even approximate a lot of those sort of retro-sounding instruments—I mean, I used to play Minimoog for real and a lot of the other keyboards that came out in the seventies and eighties, but now you have software synthesizers that really approximate those instruments. So we're able to combine the newer forms of those instruments with the actual vintage instruments. The studio where we recorded Shelf-Life had many of those instruments: Wurlitzer electric pianos, Mellotrons, Oberheim synthesizers before MIDI came out. They all have a certain sound which is very evocative of that era—but also, in a certain way, they have a lot of character to them. And when you combine that with newer, software instruments where you can do everything on your laptop, it gives us a lot of flexibility.


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