A typical Uni Caine recording is anything but typical. There could be a DJ working in a band with an opera singer. Classical musicians playing Bach while Caine lads down a stride piano groove. A little funk band? Sure, why not? Klezmer meets hard bop with a side of avant-garde free improvising — he’s done it. So Callithump is both atypically normal and classic Caine. Solo piano, that’s it. Just Uri Caine playing a grand piano at the Power Station recording studio in New York. But the whole album was recorded in one sitting, straight to tape, no stopping and exactly in order as you’ll listen to it here — a recital from the man’s gut, a flaws-and-all pu-pu platter of what was beneath Caine’s fingers during a single hour. And because the pianist is Uri Caine, the stylistic range and sense of genre is massive, all-engulfing. And fantastic.
Callithump is a suite of 11 songs for Caine’s piano alone. It starts with the title track, an organized but rumbling swirl of sound that starts in the low register with tornado clusters of notes that eventually rise to the upper register like a summer rain in reverse. Caine isn’t exactly “inviting” us into his recital, beginning with the knottiest piece on the record, but without doubt he leads with a tune that makes the clearest claim that this recording will be spiky, original, an adventure.
Here’s the rest of the program: in order, as he played it and as you hear it.
“Sepharad” is contemplative and spare — low, quiet notes that grow in lyrical squirls. It is a tone poem that blends avant-garde lyricism with an infusion of classical phrases or themes. Caine moves the tempo from slow to fast and back again, adjusts dynamics up and down within the same measure, and allows dissonant accompaniment to become the piquant lemon to his right hand’s rigorous Mozart-ian consonance.
The next string of tunes seems to come, likely by plan, as a set of contrasting dyads: pairs of songs that are sweet and sour in turn.
“Map of the Heart” begins with a light, charming fanfare of a sort, but then winds into a minor but dancing section that brings to mind what Keith Jarrett might play in his most winsome mood: driven by a combination of gospel groove and Aaron Copland-esque prairie calling. The song’s four-note motif returns in different forms throughout, each time like blue sky above you. “Greasy” follows, as you might imagine, as a soulful workout, a blues melody running above chords that drop down by half-steps, leading to a left-hand walking bass line. Here’s a tune that really sounds like “jazz” — the right hand either bluesy or boppish, the bottom always swinging.
Another contrasting pair follows. “Magic of her Nearness” is, natch, a ballad, but also a pianistic exercise, using the extreme upper register of the instrument delicately. As feeling an extraordinary as any of the Jarrett or Corea solo works, it seems to have some other quality as well — a consciousness of moving across piano traditions from different continents. Then, “Chanson de Johnson” is a quick uptempo workout that chatters back and forth between the two hands like a rhythmic hot potato — a virtuoso piece that few pianists could manage. It bounces and bobs in a string of thrilling 16th notes that flows through both of Caine’s hands and ends, wonderfully, at the piano’s very bottom, in a resonant groan.
“Bow Bridge” is a piece of ingenious filigree, the melody emerging in hints and echoes from both hands, passing from left to right, all complex arpeggiation and chording, a set of patterns that fly and twirl and spin. Then, the least filigreed song of the bunch, titled for honesty, is the modern stride song “Everything Is Bullshit”, four minutes of bluesy groove that pushes wit and feeling together. Occasionally, Caine breaks the “oom-pah” swing of the stride feeling and makes it all suddenly abstract, only to return to the swing of the start, a demented, modern James P. Johnson.
Another pair that goes from the sublime to the ridiculous starts with the perfectly named “Raindrop Prelude”. Caine builds an entire musical world out of quiet repeated notes that “fall” onto the roof your ears like rain, slow, persistent, high and low register, patterns growing more and less complex. This is as a good as an example as you might find of “program music” that is without any silliness or corniness — just a very clear depiction of a nonmusical action that nevertheless develops a wholly musical identity. It’s not just that the raindrops, for a moment, come off the trees is a tiny shower and then suddenly stop as the wind no longer blows, but the form that is created by this raindrop pattern makes musical sense too, developing a sense of contrasting harmony, rhythm, and even small, subtle melodic patterns. It is beautiful and a lead in to “Perving Berlin”. A tongue-in-cheek workout across traditional harmonic changes, Caine runs this tune up and down the keyboard and across lots of appealing chords, each melodic shape leading logically to another one but somehow the whole thing never really gets you to a set tune. It’s like a conversation where every topic is familiar but somehow you’re lost the whole time.
“Dotted Eyes” ends as Caine’s most purely pianistic and sonic experimentation. He caresses the keys to coax from the instrument remarkable sonic tricks: strings that seem to be plucked but aren’t, odd throbbing reverberations of harmonic effects, delicious distortions or waves of overtones that toy with your ears. He lets certain notes hang in the air until another comes at just the right time or frequency to set up a magical effect. Certain high chords that he hits ring inside the space to create shimmering vibrations and counter-vibrations that are captured magnificently in this gorgeous piece of recording genius. Ultimately, you come to the end of Callithump exhilarated with the possibilities of a piano, a man, a space.