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Uri Caine Ensemble

The Othello Syndrome

(Winter and Winter; US: 12 Aug 2008; UK: 11 Aug 2008)

For more than a decade, pianist Uri Caine has been performing the nearly impossible—he has been successfully interpreting the work of great classical composers through the lens of jazz, soul, electronic music, klezmer, marches, you name it. Caine himself is an astonishing polymath, with expertise and affection in all these musical styles. But what makes this high-wire act work is that he performs it with fearless wit.


The Othello Syndrome, Caine’s zany take on Verdi’s 1887 opera, is Caine’s most consistently focused classical project and, plainly, one of the very best.


The wonder of this recording is how a single consistent ensemble works in so many styles while keeping it’s basic sound intact. As an opera, of course, this work requires a passel of singers, and they vary from straight operatic singing to comic mock-opera to soul singing to gospel grooving—not to mention the spoken passages. But the band is tight and small: Caine’s longstanding trio with Tim Lefebvre on bass and Zach Danziger on drums; a front-line of Ralph Alessi on trumpet, Achille Succi’s clarinet, and Joyce Hammann on violin; and Nguyen Le on guitars.


This group does not attack Verdi head on. Rather, as is standard on Caine projects, the compositions have been “adapted by Uri Caine after Giuseppe Verdi”, clipping melodies, motifs, ideas, and text to form music that feels utterly new. Some of the material sounds like a mash-up, such as the dizzying “Othello’s Victory” that opens the show. (Note—Unlike prior Caine projects, The Othello Syndrome has actually been performed theatrically.)  Caine fuses the verve of a Broadway overture or the antic mock-seriousness of Gilbert and Sullivan with rock guitar, an aria, and burning post-bop jazz piano. Your ears are thinking: Zooooom!


Other tracks stick to their guns, like “She’s the Only One I Love”, an utterly convincing funk groove featuring Bunny Sigler’s cool vocal. Aside from the pleasure of hearing the character Othello reference Ray Charles, there is the thrill of inventive improvisations by both Alessi and Succi. “Am I a Fool” is a soul-gospel performance for Sigler that is taken seriously from start to finish, including gutsy guitar from Le and lush backing vocals. “Iago’s Credo” begins with a monologue in Italian that is half-sung, then it evolves into a contrapuntal chorus of spoken voices in English (accompanied by an electronic soundscape) that discuss the hopelessness and misery of life on this plane.


Some of the most joyous music on The Othello Syndrome simply lets the band take off. “Drinking Song” is a big roiling, stomping thing, just as you would imagine—but it also lets the band explode into madness in a couple of places, just like a jazz group with some fine improvisers should. “Introduction to Act II” begins as a fairly straight rondo of sorts, but Danzinger’s drums are itching to fly and soon enough Caine is improvising over a surging walk from Lefebvre.


Some of the music here is enhanced greatly by the use of electronics—work credited to Bruno Fabrizio Sorba and Stefano Bassanese. “The Lion of Venice” begins with Alessi playing atmospherically over an abstract sound bed before the band comes with gusto. “Othello’s Confession” uses electronics in a different way, as Sigler recites his crimes over a hip-hop groove, complete with funky bass and partly-processed rhythms. “The Willow Song/Ave Maria” is a gentle feature for Josefine Lindstrand’s mostly-wordless singing, but it is clothed in different kind of electronic padding, which blends seamlessly with the vocals and Le’s chorused guitar.


There is some work here that achieves unusual synthesis. The “Love Duet with Othello and Desdemona” weaves Verdi themes into a soulful groove at first, giving way to spoken word art that rides over a related accompaniment in a classical vein. It is hybrid music but it largely avoids the playful herky-jerkiness of mere genre-hopping. The shifts from popular music to classical music to jazz are not jump-cuts. While the music remains antic, beyond description, and wonderfully playful, The Othello Syndrome feels less like a brilliant joke than like an authentic common ground. Unlike some of Caine’s other classical hybrids, this is a disc you can actually sit down and listen to—it hangs together. It does not cutely wear out its welcome.


As Uri Caine continues to explore the interpretation of classical melodies through a post-modern sensibility, it is fair to wonder when these projects will seem repetitive or tedious. The Othello Syndrome, while it plainly falls in line with its many predecessors, seems different—if only in being a more unity summation of Caine’s method. If you have yet to get a listen to Uri Caine, this would be a wonderful place to start—with a concise work that just may rank among the composer’s best ever.

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Will Layman is a writer, teacher and musician living in the Washington, DC area. He is a contributor to National Public Radio and frequently appears as a guest on WNYC's "Soundcheck" as a jazz critic. He plays both funk and jazz in the bars and clubs in and near the nation's capital. His fiction and humor appear in print and online.


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