[Dixielandjazz] Jazz & The Goldberg Variations - Uri Caine

Stephen Barbone barbonestreet at earthlink.net
Sun Apr 20 20:02:16 PDT 2003

This post will delight Charlie Hooks and others who, like us, enjoy
Bach. It is about Jazz, but not NOT OKOM. So if you are narrowly
oriented, or worry more about the writer's style, than function, delete
now. For those who dig the Goldberg Variations, Jazz as an offshoot of
classical music, or music education in general, read on.

If you ever get the chance to see Uri Caine perform, I urge that you do
so. Either as a jazz, or as a classical musician. He is extraordinary
and has as fertile a jazz mind as exists in the world today. He will be
at the Village Vanguard in NYC towards the end of May. Go and talk to
him if you do, he is a very nice man. Note also that pianist Caine is a
Philadelphia (PA, USA) musician. Way to go Uri.

Steve Barbone

April 20, 2003 NEW YORK TIMES

Bach Meets Klezmer and Bossa Nova


       CROSSOVER sells these days, so no one should be surprised to hear
that Bach's monumental keyboard work, the "Goldberg" Variations, has
been reimagined as bossa nova, klezmer and tango, among other things.
The routine is by now familiar: critics moan, and purists gasp, "The

But maybe this time they won't. The pianist is Uri Caine, a ferociously
versatile jazz musician known for playing fluid funk, fusion and
traditional jazz as a fixture in New York's downtown music scene. Bach
is only one of several composers Mr. Caine, 46, has brilliantly
re-envisioned over the years. And rather than suffering critical ire or
artistic dismissal, he is juggling a schedule full of "classical"
appearances, including a performance of his iconoclastic "Goldberg"
project on Saturday at Alice Tully Hall.

Why is Mr. Caine different? For one thing, he is not just a faddish
artist prostrating himself to the gilded gods of crossover. He is a
genuine polyglot, at home in jazz but fluent in many musical languages
and capable of juxtaposing them in virtuoso collage. He has
deconstructed music by Bach, Beethoven, Mahler and Schumann, respecting
his sources while shredding them and assembling something new.

With this combination of piety and irreverence, his projects have
endeared him to classical listeners hungry for an innovative voice that
can engage seriously with a tradition while detonating its boundaries.
He is thus in increasing demand for his classical projects, having
presented them in big-name festivals like Salzburg and Lucerne. He also
has a clutch of new commissions, and in September he will serve as music
director of the venerable Venice Biennale.

In person, Mr. Caine is mellow and understated, unlike some of his
music, and he is still getting used to all the attention from the
classical world. A few months ago, he was surprised to receive a call at
home from the Cleveland Orchestra.

"I thought it was a joke," he said recently in the Upper West Side
studio apartment he shares with his wife. It wasn't. The managers had
heard a recording of his jazz-drenched version of Beethoven's "Diabelli"
for piano and orchestra, and wanted to book the American premiere. "I
asked the guy how he found me," Mr.
Caine added. "He said, `We just looked you up in the New York telephone
book.' I love that."

It is a long way from Cleveland's neo-Grecian Severance Hall to
Manhattan's low-slung jazz shrine the Village
Vanguard, where Mr. Caine will play in late May, but his talent comes
precisely in seeing connections where
others see only distance. One connection is evident in the Bach and
Beethoven projects; both use the classical
idea of theme and variations to bridge the original materials with Mr.
Caine's postmodern musical world.

The "Goldberg" Variations in particular showcase his methods as
arranger, adapter and composer. In his
recording for Winter & Winter (different from the live version), he
offers almost all of Bach's 30 variations,
mostly in sensitive, straightforward arrangements for combinations of
Baroque instruments. Then, scattered
among Bach's variations, Mr. Caine has added 45 variations of his own,
each built on Bach's basic harmonic
progression, but ranging wildly in their vantage point on the old

Some quote Bach and the styles he drew from, or shaped, but others
catapult into ambient music,
drum-and-bass, DJ-powered remixes, rave-worthy hypnotic grooves,
computerized gibberish, drinking songs,
swinging six-piece combo numbers and so on. Pianists like Jacques
Loussier have tried before to jazz up Bach,
but none have sounded so aggressively modern.

Mr. Caine's macaronic mix of styles is inspired by Bach's own. Bach
inserted national dances of his day, so Mr.
Caine counters with tangos, mambos and the like; Bach wrote canons at
every interval, so Mr. Caine follows
suit. Some variations are inevitably more successful than others, but as
a whole, the project exudes ingenuity. It
is a categorical dismissal of categories.

Before dismissing dividing lines, you have to understand them, and Mr.
Caine's background gave him the tools
to do so. He grew up in Philadelphia and studied with the jazz pianist
Bernard Peiffer, who had him practice
Bach and Chopin to improve his technique. The "drills" sparked an
interest in classical music, and Mr. Caine
began composition lessons with a family friend, the noted classical
composer George Rochberg.

A serious presence in academic music, Mr. Rochberg was then at a turning
point in his own stylistic growth,
moving away from a rigorously 12-tone language toward music of tonality
and quotation. Mr. Caine remembers
feeling crestfallen as a teenager when he heard from Mr. Rochberg that
12-tone music was dead: "I thought,
`Wait, it hasn't even begun for me yet, man, and it sounds incredible.'

So Mr. Caine persisted, exploring everything he could find back to the
Renaissance. He enrolled at the
University of Pennsylvania, where he studied with Mr. Rochberg and the
iconoclastic composer George Crumb,
earning extra money by accompanying the chorus. At night he played
widely in Philadelphia jazz clubs.

After graduating and playing jazz full-time in Philadelphia, Mr. Caine
moved to New York in the late 80's,
thriving on the openness of the downtown aesthetic and falling in with
mavens like the trumpeter Dave Douglas
and the clarinetist Don Byron.

In 1995, Mr. Caine's record producer, Stefan Winter, knowing of his
classical interests, invited him to compose
music for a silent film about the life of Mahler, and the resulting
project (recorded twice on Winter & Winter)
may be the best of his classical-inspired work to date, because it takes
such a personal approach. Mr. Caine
researched Mahler's life, culling biographic, psychological and musical
themes, then refracted them through the
prism of his own avant-jazz sensibility. A motley downtown ensemble
joins in, and the music is at once familiar
and poignantly distorted.

Mr. Caine quotes the funeral march from Mahler's Fifth Symphony,
morphing it into a gentle swing number,
then pounding it, as if with a subconscious rage, in blocks of noise
reminiscent of John Coltrane's "Ascension."
On another track, he quotes the gorgeous, deeply spiritual "Urlicht"
from Mahler's Second and extends it; Mark
Feldman's solo violin improvises above, channeling Mahler's angst into
fierce arpeggiations while Mr. Caine's
chords churn primally below. The work ends with the farewell from "Das
Lied von der Erde," overlaid with a
cantor singing the Hebrew prayer for the dead: a powerful coupling that
evokes the Judaism Mahler had
repressed even as his music sometimes seemed to remember.

Reactions to Mr. Caine's "classical" work are seldom tepid. He and his
ensemble were booed at the Munich
Opera, but a younger audience in Cologne gave them an ovation that
lasted 20 minutes.

What listeners make of Mr. Caine's projects is colored by their own
definition of music. Those wedded to
notions of genre, purity and chronology might hear only offensive chaos.
Those willing to the see the classical
tradition as porous and open to the street noise of a sonically jumbled
universe will find it provocative music
that, for all its composite parts, remains remarkably organic.

"There is nothing arbitrary, nothing self-conscious, nothing artificial
about it." Mr. Rochberg said. "It is as
natural as you would want any composer's music to be at any time."

Indeed, Mr. Caine succeeds at crossing the gulf between classical and
jazz not by shuttling obsequiously
between the two but by remaining defiantly in one place, and having the
audacity to treat all music as lying
within the reach of a vivid improvisatory imagination.

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