Paris: 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. He has "refreshed" Bach, Wagner and Mahler and his own variations on Beethoven's "Diabelli Variations" will be premiered on February 22 and 23 in Potsdam and Cologne, Germany.
Using 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 montuno.
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."
His 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.
He 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 comper 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 Morocco.
"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 Christi anity. 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."
Recorded 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 cafe 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 originally published this piece in the International Herald Tribune.
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