Innovator mixes classical music and salsa, blues, tango

Philadelphia-born jazz pianist Uri Caine is garnering rave reviews for his complex riffs – adding jazz, blues, and Jewish sounds to sacrosanct classical music such as Mahler's "Kindertotenlieder," Schumann's "Dichterliebe," and Bach's "Goldberg Variations."

The "Goldberg Variations," originally written for solo keyboard, is performed by Caine's ensemble of horns, strings, a deejay, and a choir in a variety of forms, including tango, klezmer, and salsa.

With a distinguished list of recordings out from Winter & Winter Records and three titles just released simultaneously in the United States, he is attracting international attention. He is also scheduled to play at jazz venues in Texas, California, Illinois, Ohio, and New York in the next few months. (See full listing at end of story.)

Critics say Caine is clearly a force to be reckoned with in the future of creative jazz. London's Guardian newspaper calls him "a king among princes, a consummate musician who sounds great whether playing Bach, ... Puccini's Nessun Dorma, wrangling an ambitious avant-jazz ensemble around the music of Mahler, or doodling drolly with a tune from 'Fiddler on the Roof.' He is prolific, hugely proficient, and ambitious – a bit of a monster."

In conversation, the soft-spoken Caine seems neither royal nor monstrous, explaining how as a boy his parents, both university professors, encouraged his musical leanings.

By age 15, he was playing piano in Philadelphia's jazz clubs alongside such legends as drummer Philly Joe Jones, whom Caine remembers as "very funny, full of stories about [John] Coltrane."

Caine studied with the French-born pianist Bernard Peiffer, who first introduced Caine to the music of a major influence, Thelonious Monk. "Bernard told me lots of people will say that Monk can't play the piano," Caine recalls. "But he has his own technique and style by cutting away the excesses of other styles. To me, Monk represented the idea that you can have [both] complicated structure and humor in music."

Caine says he hopes the composers whose music he transforms would look with equal good humor on his efforts, although he does not presume to speak for them.

His album "Urlicht/Primal Light" features arrangements of the music of Gustav Mahler, who, Caine admits, "might have thought that his works were perfect as written. But, after all, Mahler himself ... rewrote works by Beethoven when he performed them. It isn't that Mahler 'needs' to be changed, but as a jazz musician I wanted to interpret this material with feeling, rather than saying that it's only for classical musicians...."

Caine interprets Mahler in styles of blues, jazz, klezmer, and Brazilian bossa nova. Perhaps even more profoundly altered is Schumann's romantic love song, "Dichterliebe," in which the original German poems by Heinrich Heine are freely rewritten into English to correct what Caine calls their "Hallmark greeting card connotation, to combine a pop sensibility and gospel style."

Clearly trying to break boundaries and easy definitions, Caine is not enthusiastic about the way such terms as "postmodern" and "crossover" are bandied about to describe his work.

"Throughout music history, there are times when people tried to combine different elements of music, so there is always the need to experiment," Caine says. "Today crossover implies something simpleminded, or simplified work that adds something to make it seem more familiar. I'm not into that. I try through group interaction to find something happening in the structure of the works. I'm not trying to popularize or simplify them."

He observes that there is a tug of war in jazz today between those who ossify tradition, performing jazz as it was in 1930, and those who to try to innovate: "The dilemma – and not just for jazz – is that tradition must be preserved, while others say that the tradition is in fact to innovate. I feel more sympathy with the second view."

More radically innovative than past jazz performers of the classics, such as the Bach-obsessed French pianist Jacques Loussier or the Swingle Singers, Caine admits that his major classical influence on the piano was Glenn Gould. "When I first heard his playing, it was so swinging, it was like a jazz pianist, and the rhythmic propulsion was incredible. I was shocked when I heard people criticize his way of playing," he says.

Never one to shy away from potential criticism of his own work, Caine is preparing for his next big project, still under discussion, to riff at the La Scala opera house in Milan on Verdi's "Otello," featuring a North African hero and "street music" in a theater piece that will be "concerned with the resurgence of anti-Semitism in Europe."

Whether addressing such sober subjects, or performing a burlesque instrumental piece, "J. Edgar Hoover in a Dress," Caine is someone to watch out for.

• Caine performs in Austin, Texas, April 6; Half Moon Bay, Calif., April 7; Oakland, Calif., April 8-9; Cleveland, April 11; Purchase, N.Y., April 12; Chicago, April 19; Boston, May 1-2; Columbus, Ohio, May 9; and New York at the Village Vanguard, May 21-26.

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