Uri Caine is dead serious: he is playing a joke on you.
Uri Caine is a mad trickster of the jazz piano, a post-modern musical alchemist who is equally happy goofing on Mahler, in a straight-up jazz trio at the Village Vanguard, playing fusion with ?uestlove or making giddy on ‘70s television music. He’s a polymath, a genius, a consummate sideman, a downtown hipster, and a devotedly serious musician. If you’ve never encountered him or if you own all his albums, it hardly matters: the cat is likely to surprise you either way.
For his latest release, Shelf-Life, Mr. Caine revives the electric trio from his 2002 release Bedrock, which now is the name of the band. In the first release, Mr. Caine played mostly Fender Rhodes (along with some acoustic piano), Tim Lefebvre was on electric bass, and Zach Danzinger played densely funky drums. The album struck gold as an aggressively hip fusion record—more electric Miles or Mwandishi-era Herbie Hancock than anything smoove. A few tracks from 2002 played toward the “nu jazz” of today, with a drum ‘n’ bass flavor (“Fang”), a mock-lounge vibe (“Lobby Daze”), or a Medeski, Martin, and Wood-ish incorporation of DJ Logic turntables. One unforgettable track (“Root Canal”) combined fevered jazz piano with nonsensical screaming such that you wanted to laugh, but not turn off the record. Mostly, though, it was a funked out collection of red-hot Rhodes solos.
The new Bedrock disc turns in the direction of zaniness, while staying centered on the electric trio. The first two cuts could be from the first disc—“SteakJacket Prelude” being a jammy Rhodes-fest and “SteakJacket” being a furiously percussive house-music feature for Caine’s scratchy synths. But then arriveth “Defenestration”, an actual DITTY, a kind-of disco/Latin groove for skating rink organ and ‘70s synth—the kind of keyboard sound that sounds like one of R2D2’s oily little squeaks. Mr. Caine solos furiously over the tune’s TV theme song harmonies, then he gives way to a percussion break-down before the theme returns, heavily flavored by the keyboard’s note-bending wheel. A sample of a man saying “That is terRIFic!” ends the tune. And you’re like: WHAAAAH?
That’s what this album is all about.
“Blakey” is a send-up of a blaxploitation movie theme. It starts with the sound of a car starting and driving off. Scratched Shaft guitar comes in, then a synth-horn line of crime movie-simplicity. It’s a funky exercise, but the element of parody is paramount. Bootsie Barnes guests on tenor sax, playing just the blues essentials, as Mr. Caine and his trio color the whole the production with layers of ‘70s-appropriate groove, acoustic piano tremolos, and wah-wah guitar, all of which climaxes into a staccato horn lick over a drum solo. It’s ingeniously assembled, though I’m not sure how many times you’ll want to get the joke as the sirens blare at cut’s end.
“Strom’s Theramin” is a similar, even more comic, exercise. This tune sounds for all the world exactly like a TV game show theme. You can practically see Gene Rayburn with that skinny little microphone he used on Match Game ‘76 before your eyes. Again, Mr. Caine’s period synth sound takes the lead and solos with leaping joy. It’s as if Chick Corea had been hired by Mark Goodson and Bill Todman to come up with a bitchin’ theme. Kids—here it is. The first truly ripping game show track in jazz history.
“Watch Out”, “Shish Kabob Franklin”, and “Sweat” fall into line with these tunes. The first is a boogaloo organ groove that sounds like the soundtrack to the party scene from a Bond film (that is to say, it sounds like it came from an Austin Powers movie). “Shish Kabab” sets up a slinky groove for more synth lead, a slow samba cocktail feel that gives way to a digital piano sound that places the whole thing in some kind of retro tiki bar, with couches strew all over and too-expensive mixed drinks flowing. “Sweat” marries a Philly-soul track (Caine is from Philadelphia and has recorded music with an all-Philly theme before) to a Bunny Sigler vocal that evokes Marvin Gaye without really taking itself seriously.
And that’s ultimately the question that Shelf-Life raises: is Uri Caine’s “play” with these 1970s tropes ultimately enough to satisfy his audience, musically? The sense of parody, exaggeration, and pastiche is dead-on brilliant, at least the first time you hear the disc. If you’re over the age of 40 (or simply a fan of the music and culture of “The Me Decade”) and have a healthy appetite for exercises in post-modern self-consciousness, well, this is practically a must-have album. But how big is that audience?
There’s more to the album, however. Between these six tracks of outright pastiche there is plenty of more conventional Bedrock. It’s not divorced from the album’s theme, as these tracks groove with a fusiony backbeat that certainly suggests Headhunters and the like, then update the formula with electronic beats and processing that comes straight out of today’s formula for hip funk. A few tracks suggest more original amalgamations of sources—“Oder” features Caine’s acoustic piano and Ralph Alessi on trumpet yet still uses some amazing rhythmic displacement that suggests a meeting between Hancocks’s Empyrean Isles and the Chicago Underground Quartet. “Be Loose” mixes a wandering soul vocal with bubbling textures of groove; and “Bauwelklogge” serves up a keyboard sound that seems to mimic a tape played backwards.
The whole package is aggressively inventive, a feast for fans of the surface—with every wash and cymbal hit calculated for maximum crunchy presence on your ear drum. It compares, say, to Mr. Caine’s monumental The Goldberg Variations (a wildly various pastiche of the Bach compositions), but it seems ultimately less nutritious, if only because the springboard for the tribute/parody on Shelf-Life is somewhat less substantive to begin with. You’re overwhelmed by this album and stunned by Caine’s pluck, but do you want to hear it more than twice?
For me, the answer is: Yes. The small details of Shelf-Life are utterly worth revisiting. Each time it sounds a bit less jammy and more organized. But it repays the kind of listens it’s hard to give in life—long, hard, sustained listens.
If you’ve got the time and the inclination, well—Uri Caine has just the album for you.
// Notes from the Road
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