Perfect Sound Forever

The Uri Caine Ensemble - Gustav Mahler In Toblach
I Went Out This Morning Over the Countryside

By Ken Waxman (November 1999)

Like Karl Marx's Communism and Europe, jazz has long been haunted by the spectre of classical music. And, in truth, its effect on the music has been about as long lasting as the Soviet state. From its very earliest days, jazzmen have toyed with the classical idiom. From the string-laden pseudo-symphonic work of Paul Whiteman, who tried to bring "respectability" to jazz, to the adaptation of "serious" pieces by such Swing era pacesetters as violinist Eddie South and bassist John Kirby, it seemed that every pre-modern jazzer wanted to prove he had impeccable classical training.

And that conceit continued into the modern era. French improvisers The Swingle Singers and pianist Jacques Loussier made their careers adding a swinging pulse to Bach, Stan Kenton tried a bombastic recreation of Wagner and even Duke Ellington, who certainly had enough orchestral originals in his book, constructed a confectionery tour of "The Nutcracker Suite". The Modern Jazz Quartet, bop's most "respectable" concert ensemble, garnered its largest following from these classical "borrowings". But eventually even the MJQ's leader, pianist John Lewis, one of the chief architects of the jazz-meets-classical Third Stream Movement, had to concede he was pumping from a depleted well. Using the coloration of "serious" sounds grafted onto jazz no more created a new music then did singing the blues in French or Spanish.

It has taken the post-modern 1990's to find musicians who are comfortable enough with both the classics and jazz to do something different with these influences. The most successful voyager on this trip is pianist Uri Caine. Paradoxically, he succeeds because the various shards of the music he performs are merely propped up against one another. He's not matching and melding, but instead allowing the classical music to remain as classical, the jazz to be jazz, and, in some cases the pop to remain pop and the klezmer, klezmer. He's not trying to concoct a new dish, but rather a display platter of different appetizers. And he shows this brilliantly on his new Winter & Winter disc, Gustav Mahler in Toblach.

Philadelphia-born Caine is probably best known for his sideman duties with clarinettist Don Byron. But on his own he has produced a series of gem-like recordings, ranging from his homage to Herbie Hancock Toys (on the defunct JMT label) to his deconstruction of the work of Gustav Mahler and Richard Wagner (on Winter & Winter).

In truth, his Wagner disc (Wagner in Vienna), recorded with a café orchestra in the Plaza San Marco), seemed little more than a payback to the German composer for his xenophobia and anti-Semitism. By reducing such themes as "Tristan und Isolde" and "Der Ritt der Walküren" to background music, no matter how well played, Caine was showing that the ground zero of all music, no matter what ideas are attached to it, is determined by the response of its listeners.

Mahler was a different case. An Austrian Jew who converted to Catholicism to advance his career at a time when Jews were kept out of the mainstream, Caine's earlier disc entitled Primal Light, recast of some of the composer's better known work with military and klezmer rhythms plus the Hebrew singing of a cantor. In essence, Caine was "re-Semiticizing" Mahler. That disc was not only warmly welcomed by the Jazz press, but also apparently by more opened-minded classical types, since this new live album was taped in 1998 at the annual Gustav Mahler Festival in Toblach, Italy.

Although Caine uses a smaller ensemble than on Primal Light, this is nevertheless an even more impressive musical document, mainly because he takes apart the composer's work even more. Not only are Mahler's melodies played "straight", but they also have to share space with comments on them by jazz piano interludes from Caine, Hebraic singing, from Aaron Bensoussan and even turntable excursions from DJ Olive.

The dichotomy is clear from the very first track, "The Funeral March" from Symphony No. 5. Free jazz piano clusters dominate the intro until it's succeeded by the familiar march theme played by trumpeter Ralph Alessi. Later, "The Drummer Boy" section from "The Boy's Magic Horn", moves as much to the cadences of Bensoussan's klezmer-style phrasing then the original tune. And Jim Black's rock-style workout on the same tune, is probably not the sort of "drummer boy" of whom Mahler was thinking. "Titan", the 3rd movement of Symphony No. 1 is recast with an extended session of nightclub-style modern jazz piano stylings, while the interlude to the farewell from "Song Of The Earth" now is as much DJ Olive's as Mahler's.

Throughout the two-CD set, the group twists and turns with po-mo abandon, highlighting freebop alto saxophone solos (from David Binney), that succeed the original melodies; and the always inventive violinist Mark Feldman, who is able to move from the most "legitimate" of classical tone to pseudo-fusion fiddling with a simple arc of his bow. In the end, Caine & Company has managed to create something that wasn't there before and recast a new Mahler for the next millennium.

Elsewhere on record and live performance, Caine has stuck to the post-bop piano repertoire and is probably leery of being labelled as "that jazz/classical guy." But he is also planning to record his version of Bach's "The Goldberg Variations", the performance of which has made a name for many keyboardists, most notably Glenn Gould. Despite the name of that piece, it's doubtful that Caine will try to drag the German Kappelmeister into the synagogue. But whatever he does from now on will be worth investigating.

© Ken Waxman. This article may be downloaded for personal use, but no commercial use in written or electronic form is allowed without permission of the author at:

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