Musical mutiny

Pianist Uri Caine stirs up the Red Sea Winter Jazz Festival with his modern take on classical compositions.

Uri Caine 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Uri Caine 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
In any artistic sphere there are the purists who adhere to the tried and trusted avenues of expression, and there are those who challenge the established way of going about artistic business and keep on pushing the envelope, regardless. Uri Caine certainly pertains to the latter category.
The 55-year-old Jewish New Yorker jazz pianist is one of the stellar participants at the upcoming second annual Red Sea Winter Jazz Festival in Eilat (January 19-21).
Elsewhere in the extremely varied three-day program you can find The Bad Plus trio, who played at the 2011 inaugural winter jazz bash and have a similar reputation for trampling genre boundaries. The threesome will also present a revamped classical program, with their highly individual, if not sacrilegious, take on Stravinsky’s Rites of Spring.
Banjo player Bela Fleck and his quartet will also traverse far-flung areas of the musical domain, from bluegrass to Eastern European folk music, jazz and classical and more.
Korean-born France-based vocalist Youn Sun Nah and her quartet will bridge the jazz-poprock- ethnic music divide, while the Kora jazz band with steel pan player Andy Narell will bring a touch of Mother Africa to the proceedings.
Meanwhile, reedman Karl Seglem will offer a mix of jazz based on folk material from his native Norway.
Jazz-oriented endeavor from this part of the world will be represented by the highly successful Third World Love quartet of trumpeter Avishai Cohen; bassist and oud player Omer Avital; pianist Yonatan Avishai; and US drummer Daniel Freedman, with special guest trombonist Avi Leibovich.
OVER THE last couple of decades, Caine has established himself as one of the leading proponents of marrying widely diverse, if not disparate, genres to produce far more than the sum of the parts. The pianist was last here a couple of years ago when he teamed up with reedman Don Byron for a performance of klezmer-festooned jazz at the Opera House in Tel Aviv. His prior Israeli jaunt was a decade ago at the Israel Festival, when he presented a captivating concert of material from his Urlicht/Primal Light album, which is based on music by Gustav Mahler. The performance incorporated instrumentalists, gospel singers and a DJ.
Caine’s gig in Eilat will showcase his 2006 release for the Winter & Winter label, Uri Caine Plays Mozart. Like the Mahler expedition, this is a wide-ranging effort that embraces all sorts of musical exploits. The opening passage borrows from the original composer’s charts, with more than a whiff of New Orleans and other more contemporary vibes thrown in for good measure. And there is some grungy stuff, tangoesque departures, rock colorings and a section called Turkish Rondo, which hails from this part of the global village.
What is evident throughout Caine’s classical-based oeuvre is that the man obviously knows his brass tacks both in the classical domain and the improvisational field. He began studying jazz piano at age 12 before gaining a solid grounding in the classical sphere, at the University of Pennsylvania, and later moving to New York where he paid his jazz dues and played with such luminaries of the discipline as drummer Philly Joe Jones, trumpeter Clark Terry and saxophonist Sam Rivers. He has also mixed it with some of the world’s leading classical ensembles, including the Cleveland Orchestra, the Moscow Chamber Orchestra and the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra.
Caine says he approaches Mozart’s works with the utmost respect. “To be clear, I don’t think that Mozart needs to be made any more contemporary,” he states. “Mozart is perfect the way he exists. It is more a matter of coming from the jazz culture where it’s okay to take, say, an Irving Berlin song and improvise, even if Berlin or any other composer would say ‘That’s not my song.’ But both are right. The improviser who takes the song as a basis for improvisation is doing something slightly different than the person who writes the music in the first place.”
That also goes for the composer of the original material Caine will be revisiting in Eilat. “With Mozart, it’s more a question of what would happen if you took a group of improvisers who wanted to play Mozart but also add their own element to it. Of course, there’s an element of experimentation to it, and a risk. If it works, it’s good; and if it doesn’t, try to work on it.”
Another risk factor is that there are plenty of devotees of classical music who don’t particularly like it when people like Caine mess around with the beloved original material.
“Yes, I get people who are angry with me for what I do,” admits Caine. “The problem is that people will know the original and hear what the improvisation is immediately. They will see what is overlaid with the new as opposed to original music that they know. They maybe expected to hear a sonata and then suddenly there’s this solo in the middle which doesn’t seem to have anything that Mozart would play. I’ve dealt with that a lot.”
But Caine is clearly not looking for an easy entertainment-oriented life. “I primarily started working with classical music because of the musical challenge, to see what happens when you do that,” notes the pianist. “When you see the musicians you are playing with enjoy that, it actually makes you have to play in a different way than, say, if you’re just playing a jazz standard. The impulse, for me, is taking your improvisation to different areas. That’s exciting.”
For more information about the Red Sea Winter Jazz Festival: