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S&H Jazz Review

URI CAINE ENSEMBLE Mahler Reimagined Purcell Room, London 9 February 2002 and on CD (PGW)

Uri Caine is an American pianist and prolific recording artist who spans the jazz and classical worlds and never rests on his laurels. He has composed a new version of the Diabelli variations, worked over Schumann's Dichterliebe and arranged some of Wagner's music for small ensemble, but it was his 1996 CD Urlicht/Primal Light (Winter&Winter New Edition 910 004-2), which won an award as Best Mahler CD the following year, that aroused my attention and admiration initially. In it Caine explored Mahler's music with an improvising jazz group, showing understanding of the spiritual and emotional essence of familiar (perhaps nowadays too familiar) favourites with evident affection and respect - 'cross-over' of the best type to bring together lovers of both musics, and not at all, in my book, a mere self-indulgent ego trip.

With a different, smaller team this was recreated live at the Purcell Room as part of the South Bank Centre Related Rocks festival, and the queue for returns was an indication of Caine's international support. Many moments, such as the trumpet opening of the 5th Symphony and the Frere Jaques bass solo from the first, came across with vivid immediacy; songs from Youth's Magic Horn (The Drummer Boy), Wayfarer and Deaths of Children sets were poignant in their new guises, the jazz breaks never losing contact with their sources however transformed. The music of the Drunkard in Spring from The Song of the Earth was exhilaratingly rumbustious and the Farewell effectively recontextualised, with the contralto soloist replaced by a Hebrew cantor.

The music was played continuously by David Binney (saxophone) DJ Olive (turntables) Drew Gress (bass) Joyce Hammann (violin) Ralph Alessi (trumpet) & Cornell Rochester (drums) with Uri Caine (piano) and Moshe Haschel (cantor), each of them playing a full part in bringing a fruitful project to a live audience. Perversely, there were no programme notes to help give the many listeners who didn't know their Mahler an idea of what was being worked upon. Those are supplied in the track-listing of the original CD, which was on sale afterwards, as was also a revised and expanded version, Gustav Mahler in Tolbach (W&W NE 910046-2), recorded live by a similarly constituted group, with Aaron Bensoussan (cantor & oud), at the Gustav Mahler Festival, Dobbiaco (Italy) July 1998. Its first of two CDs ends with the Adagietto from the 5th Symphony, which in concert risks no longer always achieving its original intensity and poignancy, which is here restored by Uri Caine's daring and free ranging imagination.

Also of considerable interest is Caine's working up of Bach's Goldberg Variations, which looks at this masterwork from many perspectives, yet without quite the meaningful assimilation which gives his Mahler project such an enduring resonance. The double CD Aria and 70 Variations for Various Ensembles (W&W 910 054-2) has Caine playing a copy of a Silbermann fortepiano, a modern piano and a Hammond organ, with an assemblage of tracks from classical choral and instrumental groups, jazz players and vocalists (no way they could have been brought together for a live presentation!) reflecting the current scene, in which musicians are happy to collaborate with those from other genres.

The listing as provided seemed perverse, taking up some twenty thick pages with trendy typography (art & design Stephen Byram) but without giving any help about the non-Goldberg sources, which were tantalisingly recognisable, but hard to pin down out of their usual context. However, Uri Caine has kindly written to me personally and explained that "the Variations that are based on other works by Bach include his first cello suite, his cantatas, his organ preludes - those Variations are meant to recall in a general way other music by Bach, but not necessarily to specific pieces! Other Baroque composers that Bach studied are also referred to and I tried to write pieces in their general style, but was not referring to specific pieces of theirs - the kaleidoscopic nature of theme and variations allows for many different styles in one piece."

I did not find that this major exercise cast any significant new light upon Bach for me, but it is an interesting novelty and may well encourage Caine afficionados to explore the original masterpiece. For readers new to the Uri Caine experience I would still recommend the single CD, Primal Light, as the one to purchase first.

Peter Grahame Woolf


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