By Mike Zwerin
23 May 2002 - The original full title of Bach's Goldberg
Variations included Keyboard Practice, Part IV, Composed for
Music Lovers to Refresh their Spirits. The pianist, composer and
arranger Uri Caine takes refreshment and variation seriously.
has "refreshed" Bach, Wagner and Mahler and his own
variations on Beethoven's Diabelli Variations were premiered
earlier this year in Potsdam and Cologne, Germany.
improvisation to develop possibilities formerly only implied, Caine
turns Mahler's minor-key transposition of the song "Frere Jacques"
into a klezmer song. Bach might well be inventing for synthesizer
today. Schumann songs are set to spoken-word poetry, Wagner arranged
for accordion. While saying "I'm no Glenn Gould," Caine will
sometimes play Bach straight. A renovated drinking song is still a
drinking song three centuries later. A peasant dance becomes a tango.
A ground-bass turns into a montuna. Transposing a Bach chorale for a
gospel group is merely ecological evolution. Audience reaction to this
sort of thing can be extreme.
On the one hand, his album
Gustav Mahler/Primal Light won the German Mahler Society award
as the best new Mahler CD of 1997. It got radio play. After a
ten-minute ovation for a performance of it in a church in Cologne,
Caine thought: "We must have touched something." On the
other hand, some of the Mahler Society jury members were outraged when
he won the award. Serious music lovers accuse him of being impure
rather than refreshing. One concertgoer told him: "You do not
have the right to do this."
In fact, Caine's refreshing
variations on the classics open up a lot of new possibilities for
so-called "serious" music. This is not about "jazzing-up"
anything. He performs at classical (Salzburg, IRCAM) and jazz
festivals (North Sea, Montreal) alike. Described as an "interpretive
musicologist" by Michelle Mercer in the New York Times, Caine has
received grants from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts and the
National Endowment. "I will take an existing classic and somehow
transform it in the way Charlie Parker would work with an Irving
Berlin song," he told Mercer. "As a composer I can choose a
particular slant to a composition and then use improvisers for
different strategies - going against the original material or
exaggerating the material or having material stand as something to be
soloed against." The Mahler (on the Munich-based Winter &
Winter) has sold more than 40,000 copies so far. The most recent three
CDs were all released last year - Bedrock3 presents an
electric piano with a kind of educated funk-cum-fusion trio; Uri
Caine Rio is live with samba musicians in Brazil, Solitaire
is a solo piano concert in Schloss Elmau, Germany. They are very
different from each other and none of the three directly involve the
classics. Although classical roots are at least inferred in everything
he does, Caine considers himself above all a jazz musician.
learned how to play for people professionally in his native
Philadelphia - he calls it a "nurturing town" - with bands
led by the likes of Hank Mobley, Grover Washington and Philly Joe
Jones. While studying musical composition at the University of
Pennsylvania, he was the local composer for such visiting attractions
as Joe Henderson, Phil
Woods, Freddie Hubbard and J.J.
Johnson. More recently, he has been a sideman with Dave Douglas,
Don Byron, Annie Ross and the Master Musicians of Joujouka, from
"I grew up appreciating James Brown,"
Caine said, after working the New Morning in Paris recently: "Then
I went to rock and to jazz. In college in my time, jazz was still
being taught by the Folklore department, it was not considered
serious. When I heard Mahler, I wondered if it really had to be played
that particular way. There should be other ways to play it. Mahler
converted to Catholicism, but that was just a part of it. His music
remained very Jewish.
"Mahler wrote a chorale, which
some people regard as his acceptance of Christianity. All I'm saying
is: 'Are you sure? Maybe he's faking it.' He grew up near an army
barracks, he was influenced by fanfares and funeral marches. He put
them in his music. He was criticized for that, people did not
understand where he was coming from. What I do is look back at the
sources and treat them as subjects for improvisation."
in the Gran Caffe Quadri on the Piazza San Marco, Wagner e Venezia
by the Uri Caine ensemble deconstructs the composer's orchestrations
for a Venetian café orchestra. "Wagner lived and died in
Venice," Caine explained. "He wrote in his diary about his
various reactions to hearing his music played in cafes there. I tried
to recast the bombastic image of Wagner into a combination of beauty
and kitsch that is so much a part of Venice. There are enough versions
of Wagner that are 'pure.' This doesn't threaten that."
Mike Zwerin has been jazz and rock critic for the
International Herald Tribune for the last twenty years. He was also
the European correspondent for The Village Voice. Zwerin is currently
writing a book called "Parisian Jazz Affair" for Yale
University Press and he is the jazz editor of Culturekiosque.com.