In conversation with uri caine
By Ted Panken
“I think the idea of taking a preexisting form and transforming it through group improvisation can be done with any music,” Uri Caine stated some years ago. “I hear the groove in Mozart. I love Stravinsky. I want all the different emotions that I can get listening to Trane and Miles; I can also get them listening to Verdi. It's a question of accepting the basis that they're dealing with. On the largest level it's all one thing. But I don't want to disrespect any of the music by saying it's all the same, because it's not. Coltrane's achievement is specific unto itself, and however people want to deal with it, it has to be honored and studied and imitated and played. Stravinsky and Mahler have to be analyzed for what they did. I'm for less generalizations and more specifics.”
This attitude, at once pragmatic and utopian, has enabled Caine to establish a body of work based on no less ambitious an imperative than to reflect the last 400 years of Western music history. He turns a section of Gustav Mahler’s music into a Jewish klezmer feel; constructs a narrative of his own invention over a Bach bassline; deploys three poets, an electric guitarist; and gospel and pop vocalists to perform a Robert Schumann song cycle of 16 love poems; hires a sextet of New York first-callers to perform Caine’s arrangements of iconic [Richard] Wagneria in the cafe’s of St. Mark’s Square in Venice. His oeuvre, contained on 19 recordings for Winter & Winter since 1996, reflects an archetypically American ethos of perpetual reinvention, the incessant reshaping of the canon towards vernacular imperatives.
“I didn’t want to be in the position where somehow I couldn’t do what they did,” Caine said then of his classical proclivities. “I knew they couldn’t do what I did.” “What I did” referenced his deep jazz background, one nurtured during a long apprenticeship playing piano and keyboards on Philadelphia’s hardcore jazz and avant-funk scenes, functions he performed at night while spending his days as a composition student at the University of Pennsylvania under the tutelage of composer George Rochberg. A New Yorker since 1987, he developed a reputation as a strong postbop, inside-out pianist, one reinforced by the trio albums Blue Wail, from 1997, and Live at the Village Vanguard from 2004.
Ensconced at the Vanguard during Fourth of July week with bassist Drew Gress and drummer Ben Perowsky, both long-time bandmates, Caine joined me at WKCR for a conversation, and to promote his forthcoming Winter & Winter release, Otello.
Your trio with Drew Gress and Ben Perowsky has some longevity.
That’s true. We met in the late ‘90s, playing in other people’s groups. We kept crossing paths, and then started playing as a trio. We get together at the Vanguard, but also we tour, more in Europe, but also in the United States. We still cross paths in other people’s groups—with Dave Douglas, Don Byron, and other various projects around New York. I guess it’s just normal; you’re trying to play with a lot of different people also.
You wear a lot of different hats as a performer and artist. There’s the improvising jazz pianist we hear on Live at the Village Vanguard and Blue Wail. There’s the composer. There’s the arranger. You’ve worked with canonic repertoire from European classical music, transformed the sound of it, and earned much cache in Europe for doing that. These days you’re focusing much more on composition, with commissioned works, and not just arrangements. A few years ago, you curated the musical portion of the Venice Biennale. Where does the piano trio fit into all of this? Are you composing new work specifically for this trio? Is it more of a clearing-house for you to work out ideas?
I’d say it’s pretty fundamental. I’ve been playing piano since I was little. For a long time that was my fundamental focus of playing music, and it’s still interesting and challenging. Piano players often play in different functions, work with different types of rhythm sections, in different styles of music. They play with singers. Having those opportunities as a keyboard player is how I got into what I do. I still write pieces for the trio. Also, we take stuff that we’ve been playing for a while, and try to change it while we’re playing it. We play off of structures in the group, but it’s not always fixed. Even though we find ourselves playing a certain repertoire, we might drop certain things and go into something else in a more organic way, just to see what’s going on.
Does the trio perform material from your other spheres of activity? For instance, Mahler or Schumann or Wagner or the Diabelli Variations, which you’ve reworked on different projects Or your recent Mozart investigations...
So you keep the trio as a separate entity?
It’s not a conscious thing. I’ve played some pieces, mostly because Drew and Ben have played in these other groups, so it’s another repertoire that we know. But I don’t mix them so much, because a lot of those projects for me depend on a bigger group, a bigger improvisation.
Maybe as a pianist, I’m a lot more in the background, functioning in different ways in a rhythm section, because I like to hear the variety of all the different sounds, especially with classical music—which has that going for it anyway. But again, the trio is very open, very free. You can go in so many different directions.
Do you still practice a lot on the piano?
I try to, definitely. Sometimes it’s technical things that I’ve always been working on, because I’m still struggling with it. Other times I’ll play over different time signatures, different chord sequences, writing a tune and then trying to figure out a way to improvise over it. There’s always a lot of stuff to work on. The problem is trying to find a period of time where you can really work on it and develop it.
You did your first classical project, which resulted in the Mahler recording, in 1996. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I recall it wasn’t your idea, but was suggested to you by your producer, Stefan Winter, who signed you for his JMT label a few years earlier, before he changed his imprimatur to Winter and Winter.
A little before that project, there was a JMT Festival at the Knitting Factory. Stefan Winter and his brother had made a documentary movie on Mahler from a lot of still images, and they were asking people on the label who would like to play over it and try to create something. I was interested, because I had been into Mahler’s music. After that initial film, I spent about a year trying to figure out a way to get a larger group together to play Mahler in a way which had nothing to do with the film. That became the record.
Was the treatment mandated by the producer, or did you generate it? In other words, to take Mahler’s themes and bring in the most up-to-date performance gestures towards their interpretation, rather than doing it in a more orthodox manner.
It was really a question of musicians working it out. I mean, the producer has certain talents, but maybe not as a musician. I wrote arrangements, and then as we started to play those arrangements, certain things would occur, and then we would make changes—we still make changes sometimes. But it’s always built around a core arrangement that I’ve written for each piece that we do.
Now, you’ve been doing these projects for more than a decade, and after not that long, it started to seem like the most normal thing to have a gospel singer sing lieder, or use a deejay or keyboardist, and so on. But in 1996, it was a pretty radical aesthetic gesture. Or was it?
It wasn’t necessarily a new idea. It’s been part of the music’s history for a long time that composers and arrangers look for different music to incorporate into their own music. Duke Ellington was writing incredible arrangements of Tchaikovsky. A lot of improvised music, jazz, whatever you want to call it, involves a lot of different variations on the form of the structures, and then using improvisation to enhance and intensify it. That relation between structure and improvisation is fundamental in a lot of the music. I read that Mahler added trombone parts to Beethoven’s symphonies because he was convinced Beethoven would have done this if he’d had a modern valve trombone. That reinforced my idea to give this music to players who can find different ways to play it.
Had this approach been on your mind for a while, or did it coalesce through the empirical process of putting the Mahler project together?
Well, you’re working on different things. One of the first assignments I had as a young composition student was to take Mahler’s symphony and reduce it for piano. That was a monumental task. At least, it seemed so to me when I started to do it, because it involved really trying to understand what all the instruments were playing—of course, it was meant to teach orchestration in a certain way. So I was hearing Mahler inside me from that point of view. I had other experiences. I was playing a lot of klezmer music with Don Byron. I was playing in other large groups in New York where, again, I was seeing how the orchestration enhanced a lot of the music-making. So it was a question of accumulating all these experiences. It’s like anything else. When somebody gives you a gig, or an opportunity to play, or a deadline, you go for it, and hopefully it sounds good.
As a young guy in Philadelphia, you were involved in a lot of different scenes, as you are now. You grew up there, attended University of Pennsylania as a composition major, and played in pretty high-level company from your teens—a lot of dynamic drummers.
Of the drummers who were playing when I was first coming up, Philly Joe Jones was the most famous.
You played with him a fair amount.
Sure. Also, Mickey Roker lived in Philadelphia. Bobby Durham, a very fiery drummer. There was a great drummer named Hakim Emannuel Thompson, who a lot of people don’t know as well as they should. Edgar Bateman also, a very complicated, complex drummer.
What sorts of gigs were you doing in those years?
The gigs were mostly in bars. Some of them were I guess known as jazz bars. Some were just bars that had music. People really enjoyed a lot of the music that was happening. Philly had a lot more jazz clubs then than now, and musicians from New York would come down and play. There were also sessions—a lot of the bars, especially in north Philadelphia and south Philadelphia, had music every night. So there were a lot of chances to play.
Were you playing mostly Fender Rhodes, or did they have pianos?
Some of the places had pianos, but most of them didn’t have anything. So I would end up bringing my Fender Rhodes. That’s actually how I started playing a lot of electric instruments, and then the DX-7 on straight-ahead jazz gigs. It’s mostly because they didn’t have pianos.
Would you say that these formative experiences have carried over into your musical production of the last decade in various ways?
In the piano trio, are you still thinking not so dissimilarly to the way you were thinking about 20 years ago in Philadelphia, or have your ideas evolved a great deal?
They’ve evolved in certain ways, but in other ways it retains the same basic thing—going for a certain energy, a certain type of swing, also a certain flexibility. It’s definitely part of the music that I was playing when I was growing up, and especially the music I was listening to when I was growing up. I also went to New York to listen to a lot of musicians play, too. So I think it’s continuing what was starting then.
What music were you listening to then? The Blue Note pianists? A broader range of music than that?
It depended. A lot of the live music I heard was happening in the clubs in New York, which included everything from Thad Jones-Mel Lewis to Joe Henderson, to a lot of the pianists you’re talking about. Really, all the pianists were playing in New York, Bradley’s, that whole scene where so many different styles were happening. Then, when I discovered the more Downtown scene in New York, I’d try to get records, and come to the clubs, and see what was going on. I went through phases of checking out musicians like Anthony Braxton and Cecil Taylor live, and getting really interested in what they were doing. I also think it’s natural that you get interested in a lot of different types of music you hear on the radio.
Philadelphia had a very strong radio station, WRTI.
Philly had a very strong radio station, it’s true. That station was taken over pretty much by Temple University. But there was a lot of opportunity to play live on WRTI, and they definitely fostered a lot of the music scene that was going on in Philly.
As a young guy, were you a stylistic emulator? Would you try to get Herbie Hancock or McCoy Tyner, or even Cecil Taylor, under your fingers, or was it more a matter of absorbing vocabulary and letting it emerge?
Different ways. I went through a period of trying to transcribe, because other musicians that I was playing with were doing that. Other times, I would just try to listen a lot and see what was going on, not to try to imitate so much, but just to get the feeling of what was going on, but listening very carefully, especially in terms of phrasing, seeing how people improvised harmonically—all those things. It’s normal. You go through periods of research, where you really want to get something; other times, you’re just letting your imagination go where it goes, and then you work from that.
As a young guy, 18-19-20, doing gigs with musicians like Philly Joe Jones and Bobby Durham and Mickey Roker, how proactive were they with you? What did you assimilate from being around people of that generation?
It depended. They all had strong personalities, and they were functioning within a larger scene where they were known and respected, so that there was a certain seriousness that was taken to music, but also a lot of humor, a lot of telling stories about their experiences, sort of laughing at the situations that they were finding themselves in. A lot of talking about politics—a lot of stuff. As a younger person, you learn to absorb it. But on the musical tip, it was very serious, because you’re expected to know something, and you didn’t know it, and you had to try to get to that point where you could master a certain repertoire, certain styles of playing.
Would you say that in Philadelphia at that time there was a certain approach to piano playing distinct from other cities? The city produced a number of iconic pianists, and I’ll never list them all—McCoy Tyner, Bobby Timmons, Red Garland (a transplant from Texas), Hassan Ibn Ali, Kenny Barron, among them. Was there a Philadelphia piano lineage that you needed to be aware of in forming your own vocabulary?
When you would hear older musicians talking about pianists, or “this guy played with me and he moved to New York early,” you were definitely getting an idea about what was going on and what was expected, especially as the pianist in a rhythm section playing with them. It wasn’t stated explicitly, but you just understood that it was what you should be getting to know. For me, it was a very beautiful experience. It was like a mentoring thing. The musicians in Philadelphia were tough when they had to be, but they were also very friendly and encouraging to younger musicians.
There was also a serious funk and R&B scene in Philadelphia, and you had one foot in those waters as well.
There’s a really strong R&B scene coming out of Philly, and I loved playing that music, too. It was just an experience of they needed a keyboard player, BOOM. I enjoyed that.
In a certain way, all the vocabularies you’ve incorporated into the very diverse recordings you’ve done since 1996 we can trace to your early years.
I think so. I continue to maintain interest in all those areas. I think also, for a lot of musicians, you don’t really understand something until you’re in a situation where you actually have to do it. Then a lot of other considerations suddenly become very important, and that’s when it becomes really fun to study and get into it, to see what you can do it. Especially if the musicians around you are helping you out, it’s even better.
Your latest recording, Otello, is a recomposition, rearrangement, and recontextualization of Verdi’s opera Otello, which you first performed at the Venice Biennale in 2003, the one you curated. How did it come about?
Speaking about Philly connections, I was writing some music with Bunny Sigler, who is a singer who was associated with a lot of the sound of Philadelphia from the ‘70s and ‘80s, and as a songwriter also with Patti LaBelle, a lot of people who were coming out of that scene. We were talking about doing a version of Otello, where he would play Othello, and we started working on it from that point of view. We started recording it when we played it in Italy five years ago. It took a long while to get the whole recording done. But it started from hanging out with Bunny Sigler and thinking about how to take an R&B singer and deal with, say, something where the vocal tradition is so different, but in a way, maybe it isn’t.
What do you mean, “In a way, maybe it isn’t”?
Because there’s a certain dramatic aspect to singing that is in both of those traditions. The way emotion works in the music also can be very similar. It’s very direct. Some of the music we did is much more in the R&B side. Some of it is maybe more on the Verdi side. That’s what was fun about working on it, because we got a chance to do different things.
In preparing for a project like this, what do you do? Do you buy five recordings of Otello and three DVDs and the score, and immerse yourself in it? Or does work differently than that?
Yes, you do all those things. But you also think about how, let’s say, Shakespeare expressed Othello, and what about other treatments of that story. It’s a story that a lot of people know, and there’s a certain fascination with how it works. So in thinking about that, and thinking about how to present, let’s say, all the different aspects of that story (in these various versions, different aspects are emphasized or not emphasized), you come up with something. Working with and writing music for the singer is a different process than, let’s say, writing an arrangement for an octet. You’re following this plan in your head that you hope will work out, and when you feel that it isn’t happening, you start to make changes, adding things, maybe subtracting things. Then it just becomes something that you’re working on. But it helps to know, of course, the original material.
From your prior remarks, it sounds as though you started with arrangements of a few pieces, and then proceeded to build the structure empirically, through trial-and-error, seeing what worked in performance.
Are all these arrangements of yours—the Mahler lieder and symphonies, Diabelli Variations, Mozart, Schumann—very malleable? It seems that once you’ve completed a project, it becomes another tool in your arsenal, so to speak, that you can keep molding, as an ongoing story.
Just naturally, in the ebb and flow of events, yes, because you do something, then you work on it, then you might not do it until later, and then when you have to put it together later, different things might occur. Maybe there’s different musicians, different personnel, a different situation—you start to see that maybe it’s better to do it this way or another way. I think it’s good to be open in that way.
Are you very specific in how you want these pieces played, particularly on the classical projects? How proactive are you in determining the tone of the musicians who are performing?
Most of the time I try not to say so much, and just let the music suggest it. Usually, if you’re working with musicians who are sensitive to that, they can pick things up. Again, it’s more a give-and-take. But a lot of times, when you’re thinking about the arrangement in your head, obviously you had an idea, and there’s nothing wrong with stating that idea and seeing how it sounds. If it sounds good, then it’s cool. If it needs to be worked on, work on it. If there’s other ways to do it, check it out.
Do you suggest those other ways? In other words, will you say, “I don’t like that, try it this way”?
Sometimes. But a lot of times it’s a question of letting the players find their comfort level with what’s happening. Rather than jump on somebody immediately and say, “Do it this way?” or “Don’t do it that way,” it’s better to sort of let things grow. I think that’s natural, when people are playing together. After a concert, you can say, “Okay, that sounded great; maybe we should do this.” Especially if the players are open to that and they’re making their own suggestions, that’s a good process. Sometimes, though, immediately you can say, “This has to be fast,” or “this has to be played very short.” But it’s usually not a problem. When you’re playing with musicians who are flexible, it’s not a problem at all.
In 1995, when you embarked on these works, you were playing predominantly as a sideman, although you’d done a couple of recordings on your own. You still play with certain groups as a sideman—keyboards with Dave Douglas, projects by John Zorn and Don Byron, to name three. What is it like for you now to play as a sideman? Do those issues come into play for you, having control over the flow, over the sound?
Not really. So much of this music is about group playing. If you want to talk about a way of thinking as you’re growing up, as being part of a rhythm section and trying to learn how to play with other people that way, it’s just a natural thing. I don’t really think of being a sideman as somehow necessarily being subservient.
I wasn’t thinking of “subservient.” But this is music that isn’t yours, whereas more and more you’re producing works that reflect your view of the world through music.
But I like to be in other people’s movies, too. I think it’s interesting to see how other people work. In a certain way, it’s a relief, because you’re brought in to play your thing and do your part. You’re not necessarily worried about the whole thing, or other extraneous things which might distract you. Honestly, I like both. I like being able to play in situations where you just come in and play, or other times where you’ve rehearsed and worked stuff out. I also like to lead groups in both ways—sometimes just getting together to see what happens, and other times thinking we need to work on something for no other reason than that, when we hit it, we want to be comfortable that we know what we’re doing. I don’t think there’s that much difference. No matter what you’re doing, you still end up trying to think about how to sound best within the context of the group.
I wouldn’t ask most musicians this, but I’m wondering if you have any speculations, or have thought at all about where your musical production is positioned vis-a-vis the musicians of your generation and the musicians you play with, not in terms of its value, but the ideas that are expressed.
For me, I’m not so conscious of being part of a generation, although obviously, if you match experiences and say, “I came to New York at this point, and the first time I heard this was at this point. . . .” That’s different for every generation, and I wouldn’t deny that there’s a reality to that. I guess I’ve never thought of myself in that way, except as somebody who came and tried to participate in certain things that were happening at a certain period of time.
That period would be the cusp of the ‘90s. Peers would include the guys you do sideman work with—Dave Douglas, who’s a little younger. Zorn. Don Byron was mixing genres. Brad Mehldau was beginning to come into his own, odd meters were being expressed. Danilo Perez and Gonzalo Rubalcaba were coming on the scene. Steve Coleman and Greg Osby. Many others. So I’m wondering if you see yourself as flowing within those broad streams, or if it’s a point of irrelevance to you?
No, it’s not a point of irrelevance, because all those people you mentioned, I love their music. I’ve studied it, I’ve listened to it, I’ve enjoyed it, I’ve been inspired by it. So in the sense that it’s part of my musical consciousness, then I would say I embrace that stuff. What happens, though, when you’re working on supposedly your own thing (or really just working on something) is that sometimes you think about those things, and other times to do so is a distraction. In other words, you have your own thing, whether you want it or not, and to go out of it or stay within it is always something you can decide. As for me, I’m not so conscious. I’m just thinking more intuitively, going for what I want and playing with whom I want to play.