There can't be many more eclectic, or daring, musicians around than Uri Caine. The Philadelphia-born, New York-residing jazz pianist has spread his artistic net just about as wide as it can go and even raised some eyebrows in the process.
Next Friday, Caine will team up with clarinetist and longtime collaborator Don Byron in a varied program of jazz standards, self-penned pieces and klezmer-oriented compositions, in the latest of this year's Performing Arts Center jazz series.
In the last 15 years, Caine has put out an almost dizzying array of works, including an unusual take on Bach's Goldberg Variations, which ran the gamut from Baroque to gospel, straightahead jazz, blues, soul, electronic music and contemporary opera. His Primal Light album, based on Mahler compositions, stretched the idiom tapestry even further, incorporating Balkan-sounding orchestral slots between classical ventures, DJ scratching, abstract continuums and cantorial singing. The 1999 performance of Primal Light at the Israel Festival was enthusiastically received, challenging mix notwithstanding.
But Caine has also certainly paid his jazz dues over the years. As a teenager, he played in bands led by some of the top jazz artists of the time, including drummer Philly Joe Jones and saxophonist Hank Mobley. He later took his craft to a higher academic plane at the University of Pennsylvania, where he studied music composition, while honing his jazz skills on the bandstand with seasoned professionals like trumpeters Freddie Hubbard and Lester Bowie and saxophonists Benny Golson and Joe Henderson.
Caine, who was brought up in a mostly Hebrew-speaking home, initially got into music with the sounds of the Beatles and other Sixties pop and rock numbers, and also the songs of Israeli diva Yaffa Yarkoni. It was when he heard works by legendary trumpeter Miles Davis and iconic modern jazz innovator John Coltrane that he began to explore the improvisational areas of contemporary music. "I loved Yarkoni's voice," Caine recalls, "and I of course heard the commercial stuff of the time on the radio but when I heard Miles and Coltrane that was it for me."
From then on, Caine devoted most of his energies and time to developing his jazz skills and, ironically, it took someone with very different cultural baggage to spark Caine's interest in Jewish music.
"For me, back then, klezmer music was a bunch of guys in bad-fitting suits playing music poorly. Then Don Byron taught me how to play klezmer music," the pianist declares. "I think he was drawn to the virtuosity and humor of the music. Look at guys like [comic Yiddish and klezmer singer] Micky Katz. There's a lot of joy in what he does and I think Don got into that too."
Jazz musicians are known to state with mantra-like frequency that "music is just music," a reference to the universality of all sounds, regardless of genre. While many pend their careers in a specific idiom, Caine and Byron freely stride across boundaries and blend almost disparate sounds and rhythms as if they were made to fit. One wonders whether Caine is ever bothered by how his audiences may react to, for example, having a DJ on stage when performing - albeit highly improvised - works by Mahler. "I guess you can try and make these distinctions to describe things," he says. "People do tend to do that. There are so many identities - like national identities or age identities."
While accepting that the public needs to have some general reference point when addressing a particular sound, Caine feels that the tag applied to the idiom shouldn't constrict the artist's freedom to bend the rules. "Everyone needs to have a name so we can differentiate between different people, but you wouldn't pretend to say that because you know the name you know the person," he says. "Especially if you have a type of music where the tradition is to innovate, it changes and morphs and becomes something that even the practitioners don't recognize the next phase of it as being the same music. Then you get later musicians who would have no problem reconciling, say, Jimi Hendrix with Miles [Davis] and [John] Coltrane and [early jazz pianist] Fats Waller."
Caine says he is delighted to have the opportunity to come back to Israel to perform, but at the same time, he accepts that his interpretation of music in general, and Jewish music in particular, may not exactly match most Israelis' expectations.
As a definitively envelope-pushing musician, Caine knows that he always runs the risk of annoying the traditionalists: "That is a given. It's not that anybody sets out to do that, but you have to persevere, even if you're not making a very good living and people are criticizing what you're doing and saying it's pointless. Artists deal with that the whole time. But we all want to make a connection with the audience." Judging by the local audience's response to his highly individual interpretation of Mahler's works eight years ago, Caine should manage that with ease next week too.
Uri Caine and Don Byron will appear at Tel Aviv's Performing Arts Center in April 27 at 10 p.m.