Uri Caine: Transformation, Improvisation and Context

Paul Olson By

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AAJ: When you're dealing with voices, and a larger group like this one—there is improvisation, but there is also structure, sections, parts to this music. I'm curious as to how it's kept together. Are you conducting or cueing the musicians as you play?

UC: Well, we don't really have a conductor, but I think there are cues, and some parts of the music are strictly written out. I mean, over time, it does transform—people start playing their parts in a different way. The inflections develop and change. But it's pretty written out in some places, although there are sections that can be pretty free and open. And then there are sections that are either straight arrangements of the Mahler, just for a smaller group—since he wrote these pieces for a huge orchestra—or some sort of an approximation, like, let's say, the melody. Or the certain groove that's set up is continued, either through something that I've written, or, you know, telling three guys, "Okay, you play this part and then the other three people improvise. Or, "In this section, the deejay should go for this type of sound, and then we'll wait until he's done and then go into section A. There are different ways you can structure it. Sometimes it can be loose—but again, if you're playing with musicians that are really open-minded, you have a lot of flexibility. This is as opposed to how classical musicians play it. For them, a lot of this stuff that we take for granted as improvisers doesn't apply—it's really a different thing.

AAJ: Yeah, the sensibility can be very different.

UC: The sensibility is different. The ability to, let's say, improvise over harmonic progressions or just play in a free, interactive way, is different. And so I think that that's another thing that's interesting about the group, because all the players have had to adapt from what they normally play, or what they often play, when they're playing this music. Even the deejay, who's sort of dealing in another world, has to think in a different way. It's not just a question of mixing some Mahler records and having us play against that, although that also can sound really interesting. It's about having to learn the music in a certain way, and knowing what to do and when to do it. But with a lot of it, I don't want to necessarily impose that much, because I feel this sort of pushmi-pullyu thing—where if I'm writing these arrangements where things are very specified, then there has to be a section where people can play in a way that's not so specified to balance it.

AAJ: I don't want to dwell too much on people's take on what you do, but I can't help but be curious about something. God knows jazz people can get uptight enough about anyone messing with what they call jazz—how does the classical establishment respond to these rearrangements and adaptations of their heroes' compositions?

UC: I think it's a mixed reaction. I think that I've gotten over-praised for certain elements of it, maybe because people from that world aren't so familiar with the fact of people that know how to improvise and transform things. Many people look at Mahler's music, and, really, all compositions, as things that are fixed, unchangeable—you can't change it. So they don't like it at all; they think that I'm either parodying it or somehow disrespecting it or they just don't like the idea of it at all. And I understand why people have those deep feelings about it, because people care very deeply. Those that do care that much are going to have strong opinions about whether this is a valid thing to do.

And also, there's that other reaction, which is "My god, this is incredible. So you really just sort of remember all the good and the bad and just keep on going your own way. Especially if you're going through a typical tour. One night you're playing in a Mahler festival where you have a lot of people listening in the audience who are maybe reading things into the music that either aren't there, or that you meant to do, or that you didn't mean to do. People argue, "Are you trying to say that Mahler was a Jewish martyr? All these things that come up. The next night you're playing at a jazz festival and the comment is, "wow, you have a deejay on stage. The next night you're playing at an avant-garde festival, and people are saying, "Oh, you're deconstructing this beautifully.

You know, that first Mahler CD won the best Mahler CD at this Mahler festival that's held every year in Toblach—one of the small towns he used as a summer home. Actually, it's called Dobbiaco—it's in Italy now. It used to be in Austria. And I wasn't there, but I heard that there was a tremendous amount of controversy that they picked it as one of the best CDs. So when we went to play there, we were expecting opposition—and the people really loved it. But then other times, we've played it in those types of contexts, and some people really don't like it; they get up. I've learned to sort of distance myself from it, because I want to just think about the music. But I do understand why people have different reactions and, again, everyone has the right to have those opinions.

I do save some of these reviews that people send me or that I've seen—ones that are so over the top where they're just hating it. I save them just to remind myself that, you know, everyone has their own take on it. I try to deal with it—or I'm trying to deal with it—much more on a musical level. I'm trying to try different things. Maybe not everything succeeds, but as musicians, we're having a really interesting time, and really a good time, playing it and trying to bring something else to the music. If there is any message to it, it's that that the music doesn't just belong to the self-appointed guardians of that music. That becomes very stiff after a certain point. I mean, certainly there are many musicians from all types of disciplines who have been influenced by Mahler and by other classical music that they enjoy. They shouldn't have to explain why they're treading on this ground. So it's one of those things where you have to sort of filter out the bad reactions and just go your own way.

AAJ: You rearranged Beethoven's Opus 120, the Diabelli Variations, for your 2002 CD of the same name. You performed this work with Concerto Köln. These are Beethoven's variations on a Diabelli waltz, and it's certainly one of the best sounding records I've ever heard—the 1839 piano you play here being a huge part of that. I'm no expert on Beethoven, but I particularly like Variation XIX and XX; they're wonderful arrangements. I will say that I was struck by the information being carried in your piano work here—I heard bits of Wagner and Mozart, for example. Variation VII alone contains quotes from Beethoven's Fifth and Third symphonies. It's remarkably dense and information-packed. Was there any intention behind this?

UC: I guess that I tried this in another way with the Goldberg Variations. But the connect between theme and variation is a form that's used in classical music where a simple theme is then developed. The harmony of the theme is used as sort of the underlying grid upon which the composer then composes many different pieces in different styles. But using that same recurring harmonic pattern really recalls how jazz musicians take standards and then use the harmonic pattern of that song to generate chorus after chorus of improvisation. There's sort of a direct correlation between those two things. I'm not saying that jazz musicians study theme-and-variations, but when we realize that we can improvise on these songs, it's the same principle of harmonic structure yielding a whole flow of different pieces.

And in classical music, it's a much different form than, let's say, the more developmental forms like the sonata form, where the composer will propose one or two themes and then develop them, and then conclude with those themes—so you have this whole journey where these themes are subjected to all these different changes. In a theme-and-variations, especially in the really great ones written by Bach, Beethoven, Mozart and Brahms, it's more about showing the composer's versatility. The variations—and usually these are short pieces—follow one another, and they're seemingly disconnected. You can go from something that's very complicated to something that's very simple to something very contrapuntal to something that doesn't have any counterpart to something that refers to other composers' styles. But underlying it is the same harmony throughout the whole thing. It's static and also very changing. So it has a different feel than the sonata form.

I read a book about the Diabelli Variations [Beethoven's Diabelli Variations, Oxford University Press, 1989] by a pianist named William Kinderman. He now teaches at the University of Illinois. It's really a wonderful book. He takes the sketches of Beethoven and he sees how Beethoven is struggling. A famous story is that there was a publisher in Vienna named Diabelli who wrote a very banal waltz and then asked 50 composers in Vienna at that point to write one variation and he'd put them all out in a folio of all 50 variations by all the composers. And when he asked Beethoven, Beethoven famously refused and said, "I'm not one of 50! And then, in total sarcasm, started writing these variations that parodied what he thought were the banalities in Diabelli's theme. Then Kinderman starts relating how Beethoven stopped; he didn't finish the piece. He went on to write other pieces, but in the meanwhile, he'd become fascinated again by Bach's counterpoint—he was studying that. And that's reflected in a lot of his later works. Then he went back to the Diabelli Variations and added these very contrapuntal pieces that, in a certain sense, are sort of an archaic idealization of Bach. So it goes from being these very cynical, sarcastic pieces to these very, very contrapuntally intense pieces.

So when I read that, I was thinking about that maybe it would be interesting to take this piano piece and orchestrate it—but have the piano be sort of the free agent that could parody the parodies, but then, by the end of the piece, add counterpoint to the counterpoint. And then also have variations where the pianist would be playing by himself and again, make references, using the same harmonic framework that the Diabelli theme had—to quote other pieces by Beethoven to refer to other music. So Variation XVI has this bass line that Fats Waller could have played, and when I've played it after that recording was made, I've usually played it on a modern piano and with a modern orchestra. But if I felt like commenting on different elements, if I was playing in a certain place, I could do something else—in other words, it's a very flexible form because you can use the chord changes to make up your own variations. Then, while the orchestra is playing the Beethoven arrangement, you can still improvise against that.

I think it's a really different idea than the theme-and-variations I did with the Goldberg Variations; there, I really wanted to emphasize the fact that in that piece, every variation is played by a different ensemble in a different style. Even when we're playing the Bach original variations, we're using different instruments, sometimes adding improvisations, sometimes adding electronics. And then I was writing my own set of the variations also based on the Bach theme. But in the case of the Diabelli Variations, it's much more static. It's more like a piano concerto. This was written for Concerto Köln; this is a group that plays ancient instruments. They're not improvisers. And this was my solution to that problem; I would be the improviser and it would sort of be this mini-piano concerto.

I have to say that I've had the chance to play that piece with a lot of different orchestras at this point, really all over the world, and it's interesting to see how the players respond to it. Because usually, you're playing it with classical symphony orchestra musicians, and you can tell that some of them are scandalized by it. You know, like, "How can you be playing all this stuff over Beethoven? But on the other hand, to those that understand about improvisation, it's okay. And you can bring in moments of Beethoven's sarcasm by, as you say, bringing in other elements that are, I guess, meant to be humorous. But then, there are other times where the music becomes very solemn and very—well, I use the word "archaic, not to mean old-fashioned, but in the sense of that veneration of the past, that idea of referring to tradition without it being a straitjacket. You're actually being liberated by being able to refer to all these glorious monuments from the past in a contemporary way.

AAJ: What's interesting about this approach, and this particular work, is that the listener can go as deep as he cares to. Someone knowing nothing about any of this can still respond to, say, the sighing string chords of Variation XX. And someone could enjoy the entire piece without recognizing any of Beethoven's or your references. You can swim down as deep as you care to.

UC: That is the challenge. All of these attempts should make sense no matter what. If you didn't know any Mahler, if you didn't know any Beethoven, it's a success if it still sounds like something that can work. And, of course, if you know what the references are, or at least the history of the composers and how people are dealing with that through time and tradition, there's also that something there.

AAJ: Tell me what you've been doing recently. I know you premiered a double piano concerto in May with the L.A. Chamber Orchestra.

UC: Well, that started maybe a year ago. I was their composer-in-residence, so part of that meant I was composing music to perform with them. The conductor of the L.A. Chamber Orchestra is a musician named Jeff Kahane, who is also a great pianist. I think he was originally a pianist, but he's become the conductor of this group and now also the Colorado Symphony and other groups. This year is Mozart's 250th birthday, and the L.A. Chamber Orchestra played—or are playing, they're still in the process of doing it—every piano concerto that Mozart wrote.

So this piece was to be premiered on a concert where two other Mozart piano concertos were being performed. Not that the piece really refers to Mozart in any way, but the idea of writing a piano concerto fit in with these other works. And also because Jeff is a great pianist, one who improvises. I'm not sure that he would consider that his main thing, because he is primarily a classical pianist, but he does improvise. He's really a fantastic pianist. The idea was to write a concerto for the group which would have two pianists.

Actually, Mozart did write a two-piano concerto—there's not really any reference to it in this piece, but the form of it could be seen as reflecting that. Anyway, all of the orchestra parts are written out, completely composed. Jeff's part is almost totally composed, although there are some improvisational things where we're playing sort of back and forth. And my part is written, but there is also a lot of improvisation. The piece is written in three movements. I hope we'll be able to record it because it was a lot of fun writing and practicing and playing it, and it's a very good group. Some of the projects that I've done in the last couple of years have involved writing more for classical groups, and that's a challenge because it's dealing with composing in a different way, learning about orchestration. So for me it's been a really interesting experience.

Now I'm writing another piece that we're supposed to go on tour with next year in Europe. I'm going to be writing the piece mostly, I think for their principals; in other words, it'll be a chamber piece with maybe five strings, wind players and some of the horn players. And just one piano—me—with Jeff conducting. So my relationship with that group continues. And it's also really interesting because I get to go out to L.A. maybe three or four times a year, and a lot of the work involves teaching in schools where there are really no music programs at all—so you're just really bringing music to kids who maybe have never heard any live performers in jazz or classical or other types of music. And also, to try to involve them in some of the software that allows them to deal with the music that I know they're really interested in, so they can create that music. So there's that element. Also, playing around in different parts of L.A. So for me, it's the first time that I've ever done something like that and it's been a really interesting experience.

And in terms of other pieces that I've written for groups—before this, I wrote a piece for the BBC Orchestra which we played at the London Jazz Festival last November, which was a 25-minute piece with the trio with Ben and Drew as the soloists. So we were improvising a lot while they were playing the written piece. And I've also gotten a chance to write for other smaller chamber groups, like the Beaux Arts Trio. I wrote a trio for them which was premiered last year. And I wrote a piece based on the life of Isadora Duncan for two pianos that was premiered in Germany. I haven't really recorded that much of this music. Hopefully I will, because I sort of have a backlog of other stuff that I've done for Stefan Winter, and I don't want to just put out classical-type stuff. I want to be able to have a balance between a lot of the different stuff that I'm doing. So we'll see. I hope that it comes out.

In Rome, there's a new auditorium designed by Renzo Piano; it's this incredible concert hall with many different performance spaces and I'm doing concerts there this year. One of them is a piece that I wrote last year that's based on aspects of Luciano Berio's music—the Italian composer who passed away two years ago. He was working with an electronic music studio that he founded, which is, I guess, the more traditional, old style of electronic music studio where they're transforming live musicians. So the piece involves Jim Black on percussion and Ralph Alessi on trumpet as well as Julie Patton as a sort of vocalist and me on piano—with the electronic element transforming what we're playing as we're playing it. So I think that that piece will be recorded when we play it live again in Rome in November.

So in terms of writing concert music, that's one of the activities I'm doing. And in terms of writing for other forms, I'm writing some big-band music that's going to be played next year. I'm doing a project based on Hungarian music; it was originally supposed to be sort of around Bartók's music, but it's now transformed itself more into taking Hungarian music and playing it with a group of improvisers. We'll be doing it in a couple of months in Hungary.

I also do some theater stuff, mostly in Europe. I wrote a ballet for the Vienna Volksoper which is based on the story of Noah. Again, it hasn't been recorded. But hopefully it will be. And I would like to do some other CDs which have bigger groups in them—with improvisers, and maybe involving some of the musicians I'm playing with. But maybe adding more horn players.

AAJ: Are we talking about, say, a ten-piece?

UC: Something like that, or maybe even smaller than that. It all depends. I have music all ready for those types of groups. It's just a question of the economics and the time to make the CD that will come out in a timely way. We'll see what happens.

Oh, and incidentally, my next CD is a series of arrangements of Mozart's music that was just recorded at the Holland Festival in June.

AAJ: Are you doing less sideman work than you used to as a result of all these projects?

UC: I would say yes. Especially compared to when I first moved to New York, because then, that's all I was doing. I still play a lot with Dave Douglas and with other groups from time to time. When you have less time to do it and to be available, it maybe takes you out of that loop a little bit. I really like doing it, because that's the way that I came up playing. I like playing in bigger groups. But in the last couple of years, the answer would be yes. But I do do things with other people. And I have some stuff coming up with different musicians. I used to play in Don Byron's group all the time, and I haven't really been playing in his groups in the last few years. But we have a gig coming up at the Tel Aviv Jazz Festival playing duo—although given the political situation there now, I wonder if this gig will happen. I am doing a tour in a couple of months with a trumpet player from Italy named Paolo Fresu. He's really popular in Italy. We'll just be playing duets.

Another thing that I've done a lot more than I used to do is play solo.

AAJ: Right, you did a solo record called Solitaire that came out in 2001. This, then, is something you still pursue.

UC: I used to do that a lot when I was really just starting out, playing in bars, playing solo piano, doing that type of thing. Then I sort of got out of that; I ended up playing a lot more in groups, doing that thing. But since that record came out, I am doing it more. I do really enjoy it in a way, because there's total freedom, and in that setting I can play a lot of the different music from a lot of the different projects that I've done. But it's also sort of lonely. But I think I'll be doing a solo tour of England—something like ten concerts. And, you know, it's another way of doing your thing. I've been playing the piano since I was seven or eight years old, so it's still really a part of what I'm dealing with.

AAJ: There are a lot of Rhodes players who aren't particularly known for being piano players, and vice-versa. But you seem to be perceived pretty equally for doing both, or either. Do you have any preference as to instrument, or is it all just a matter of context?

UC: Well, it's certainly all in the context. Especially if you're a sideman. Then, people say, "It's an acoustic group; can you play piano? Or, "It's an electric group; can you play electric? That's one aspect of how people begin to think of you in those ways. When it's up to me, I've chosen both. I was never one of those people who thought that if you're a pianist, you can't and shouldn't play electronic instruments. I just looked at them as sort of different things, or different aspects of the same thing. But I also know that each of them has its own discipline. Especially the piano; that's something that I've really tried to work on, just because there are so many different aspects to it, so many things to deal with in terms of the sound qualities that you can get—touch, pedaling, all the different aspects of it that are really interesting to me. And ever since I started playing out there, even when I was playing straight-ahead jazz in Philadelphia, a lot of the clubs that I played in didn't have pianos, so I had to bring my Fender. That's how I started really playing a lot of Fender Rhodes, and not even in funk or electronic settings. Just in straight-ahead jazz settings where that was just the instrument that was there.

There are certain things that you can get on the electric piano that you can't get on the piano, and vice-versa. And rather than get into this thing—I remember back in the day, that was a really big argument, and a person would choose to play one and not another—I just think that you don't really have to make that choice. It's more a question of really researching, and practicing, and thinking about what every instrument has to offer. Those types of arguments are not really valid; it's more that in a certain context, electronics sound great, and likewise, acoustic piano. And often, both. It's not really a question of having to decide between one or another. You just really research both.

AAJ: You're a product of the Philly jazz scene, which has, I think, a reputation for swinging pretty hard, but may not be overly notorious for experimentation. You've always done what you pleased artistically. Do you think you had to leave Philadelphia to do what you do?

UC: Well, I wouldn't say I had to leave it. First of all, even when I was growing up, you had the Sun Ra crew that was really prominent in Philadelphia. Even among the straight-ahead jazz musicians, there were people like [bassist] Jymie Merritt, musicians that I encountered when I was younger who were always trying to break the boundaries. There was the legacy of Coltrane, which was very strong in the city. But you're right—there was a certain emphasis on certain aspects of music there like straight-ahead bebop, or even in the R&B scene, that certain Philly sound that defined it in many people's minds.

I moved to New York mostly because Philadelphia is 90 miles from New York, so the question became, for a lot of the musicians growing up, is it time to move to the big city and see if you can make it there? I wasn't so much leaving Philadelphia because I thought it was provincial or didn't have all these types of music. It's just that I started coming up to New York, and I would say more importantly, meeting musicians who were coming down to Philadelphia to play. And I would be, let's say, the rhythm section guy—part of the rhythm section. And, you know, many of them were encouraging me; they said, "man, you should move to New York, because not only is there a great variety of music there, but there's people from all over the world. When I starting going up to New York as a teenager, I saw that it was a different feeling there.

Certainly, when I first got here, it was not what I had expected. The paradox was that I was working a lot in Philadelphia, and didn't have to really do gigs to just survive. But when I first moved to New York, I was scuffling a lot, doing gigs that I probably would not have done in Philadelphia. But I was able to fall into certain scenes that needed keyboard players, and one of them was definitely the Knitting Factory scene. It was pretty open-ended and included a lot of improvised music, but had a lot of different people from different parts of the country and the world dealing with a lot of different types of music, trying to come up with another type of thing. I think that that type of feeling symbolized an openness to me that I really wanted to embrace. But I was also, at the same time, trying to play with more straight-ahead jazz musicians and also was playing with more electronic people. I mean, a lot of the stuff that I'm doing now was definitely based on meeting other musicians in New York who were trying to do the same type of thing.

I wouldn't say that New York is the only place that that's happening, because certainly there are so many other places in the world. I mean, Chicago, Paris—they all have this certain scene where you have all these types of things going on and people who are much more traditional and say, "this is what we do here." And other people who are breaking out of that and trying to be more inclusive. So in that sense, maybe New York was just that place for me because it's so close to Philadelphia. But I wouldn't say that I left Philly because I found it to be so limited. It was just that New York is just right up the New Jersey Turnpike, so it was no thing to try to live here and see what was going on.

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