URI CAINE – MAHLER REIMAGINED

URI CAINE ENSEMBLE
Uri Caine (piano)
Joyce Hammann (violin)
Ralph Alessi (trumpet)
David Binney (saxophone)
Drew Gress (double bass)
Cornell Rochester (drums)
DJ Olive (turntables)
Mosche Haschel (cantor)
Fresh from his recent and acclaimed trio gig at the Vortex Jazz Club, Uri Caine brings his “Mahler Reimagined” project to the Purcell Room. As part of the South Bank’s Lindberg festival, “Related Rocks”, Caine’s inclusion here brings yet more diversity to an already successful festival.
Born in Philadelphia, Caine was taught both jazz and classical piano by the French pianist Bernard Pfeiffer. His studies later took him to the University of Pennsylvania where he was taught composition by George Rochberg and George Crumb, as well as piano with Vladimir Sokolov at the Curtis Institute. During this time he played with distinguished visiting jazz musicians including Joe Henderson, Freddie Hubbard, Benny Golson, Donald Byrd, Stanley Turrentine and Lester Bowie. After studying during the day he would spend his nights playing jazz clubs, in bands led by other jazz luminaries such as Philly Joe Jones, Hank Mobley and Grover Washington. In the late 1980s, Caine moved to New York and was soon performing in the swing bands of Terry Gibbs and Buddy DeFranco. In recent years, Caine has featured in many jazz festivals including the North Sea, Montreal and Newport jazz festivals as well as the Salzburg, Munich Opera and IRCAM classical festivals.
A gifted all-round musician, Caine is a pyrotechnic jazz pianist whose skills encompass stride-piano to hard-bop. His talent, however, is possibly more evident in his innovation and creativity as composer/ arranger. In recent years this has brought him recognition not just in the world of jazz but also of classical music. This praise includes admiration from composer Magnus Lindberg.
Caine’s ascetic for a number of years has been the amalgamation of jazz and classical traditions (Rochberg, a probable role model) with a broad-mindedness that gathers ideas and influences from all corners of the musical world. Classical themes have been audaciously reinvented and merged together, creating novel collages of music. Tango, Gospel, Reggae, Klezmer, Berlin Cabaret, Salsa etc are manipulated and used as platforms for the regurgitation of classical music (Caine has already arranged the music of Bach, Mahler, Schumann and Wagner).
Generally, these transformations have their roots in jazz and to quote Caine: "I’m coming at classical compositions from the jazz perspective, where you take a standard and somehow transform it in a way Charlie Parker would work with an Irving Berlin song". This influence of classical music on jazz goes right back to the beginning of the twentieth century, as heard in the piano rags of Scott Joplin, for example. A few decades later Duke Ellington drew inspiration from classical music orchestration and textures. Hubert Laws, the 70’s jazz flautist, even composed a jazz-funk version of Stravinsky’s The Rite of Spring and Jacques Loussier is still Jazzing-up Bach after more than thirty years.
Interestingly, in the recent recording of John Mayer’s "Indo-Jazz Fusions", we hear the scherzo from Bruckner’s Symphony No.8 spiced-up with jazz and Indian music. Caine’s arrangements, however, are not just simple juxtapositions; he creates something new out of old, giving classical themes new identity.
Of course we mustn’t forget this synthesis can work the other way i.e. classical composers responding to the influence of jazz music. For example, Stravinsky’s Ebony Concerto and Milhaud’s La création du monde, Leonard Bernstein, Milton Babbitt and Gunther Schuller who, in the 1950s, introduced the term “Third Stream” for music drawing on both jazz and classical backgrounds.
In this Purcell Room performance, jazz met classical with Uri Caine and his group presenting provocative arrangements of Mahler. With material taken from his CD “Urlicht/Primal Light” we heard Mahler’s large orchestral works reduced in length and for small ensemble in an evening of musical jokes and tributes.
Eager to find out which works of Mahler were to be performed, I was disappointed to discover no indications in the programme. Apart from any Mahler experts in the house, I’m sure a great deal of the audience did not recognise where the pieces came from and probably found it frustrating. An introduction to each piece from Caine would have been nice!
The evening kicked off with the scherzo from Symphony No.5. Caine began by extemporising on the theme through Crumb-influenced piano string plucking, which the ensemble quickly developed into a moderate-paced Klezmer feel, weaving in and out of Cecil Taylor free jazz. The piece eventually merged into a bossa nova version of ’Oft denk’ ich, sie sind ausgegangen!’ from Kindertotenlieder with a warmly received, fast-fingered solo from saxophonist David Binney. The third movement of Symphony No.1 followed and by this point a small number of people started getting restless (a few people actually leaving!).
From the start I sensed the group, at times, lacked a little enthusiasm, which seemed to be reflected in an absence of performer-audience rapport. The audience seem to perk up later during Cornell Rochester’s stunning drum solo aptly placed during ’The Drummer Boy’ (Das Knaben Wunderhorn). This contrasted well with the ’Adagietto’ from Symphony No.5; a delicate pianissimo piano introduction and solo that reminded me of Bill Evans that transfixed the audience’s attention.
For the final piece the evocative voice of cantor Mosche Haschel joined the ensemble on stage to sing a Hebrew rendition of ’Der Abschied’ from Das Lied von der Erde. An important component in much of the night’s music was Caine’s Klezmer-styled arrangements, although lacking the essential clarinet sound. This Yiddish element is probably Caine’s response to Mahler and his resistance to his Jewish roots and conversion to Christianity. The deserved encore followed in typical idiosyncratic Caine fashion: schizophrenic twists and turns in style, constantly reconstructing and paraphrasing.
This chopping and changing featured significantly throughout the concert. It reveals Caine’s interest in and understanding of folk-, jazz- and world-music traditions, although it tended to sound a bit disjointed. The ensemble performed very effectively and idiomatically with most of the solos in the jazz sections of a high standard, especially that of trumpeter Ralph Alessi.
However, I would have liked more of Caine’s masterly McCoy Tyner-influenced piano solos. The addition of a DJ worked effectively within the group. DJ Olive’s turntabling was subtly used and not too overwhelming. Playing with two turn-tables and laptop computer, he created musique-concrète miniatures of everyday sounds including dripping water, trotting horses and crying babies, which blended well with the group (there are similar ideas found in John Zorn’s music).
Although I found some of the expressed Mahler themes insipidly performed, and also felt the ensemble would have benefited from better understanding of phrasing, and the balance was slightly marred by the overly-loud drums, the concert was interesting and fun. Whether Caine managed to grasp the essence of Mahler’s musical thoughts or not may actually be irrelevant. Whatever your thoughts, I do recommend you check Uri Caine out the next time he’s in town.

 

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