Uri Caine

The Classical Variations

by Will Layman

18 March 2008

A jazz pianist mashes classical music -- and every other kind of music -- into a singular, wonderful, deeply felt whole.

There is no musician like Uri Caine, and there probably should not be. What he has been doing for the last 16 years is simply too audacious, too improbable, and too exquisite to be normal. The Philadelphia native studied with classical teachers as a kid and has chops to spare, but he played with jazz legends in his teens, and he also has a keen knowledge of electronics and music associated with Jewish heritage.

The breadth of these influences has come together most plainly and sublimely on a string of recordings that reinterpret the compositions and influences of “classical” composers such as Wagner, Mahler, Mozart, and Bach. The combination of jazz or pop music with classical music is not in-and-of-itself unusual. Typically, however, it’s a terrible mismatch—something that either demeans one of the styles or simply stitches the styles together incoherently. In Uri Caine’s hands, however, classical music becomes shot through with these other styles. The music breathes with fresh lungs. It opens up on a new morning.

cover art

Uri Caine

The Classical Variations

(Winter & Winter)
US: 11 Mar 2008
UK: 11 Mar 2008

The Classical Variations takes nine tracks from Caine’ previous “classical” releases and mixes then with 11 previously unreleased tracks from these sessions, creating a mostly new sequence of variations on Mahler, Beethoven, Bach, Schumann, Wagner, Verdi, and Mozart. Neither a “greatest hits” package of Caine’s magic nor a wholly new album, this package is nevertheless somehow new, with the mixture of composers and insane mixture of styles making this Caine’s most varied and generous release ever.

It is hard to explain what this record sounds like. There are a few tracks that might pass for “straight” classical music. “Prelude (Tristan and Isolde)”, for example, is Wagner, but only as arranged and performed by Caine’s quirky sextet consisting of piano, two violins, cello, bass, and… accordion. There is music that sounds like straight-ahead jazz—such as “The Midnight Variation”—but consists of Caine’s reworking of Bach for trumpet, saxophone, trombone, and jazz rhythm section. Most of the music, however, is more obviously a strange and dashing mutation.

The first track is Mahler’s “Only Love Beauty”, but it is performed by a classical vocal ensemble in combination with gospel singer Barbara Walker. “Variation 10” features the Viola da Gamba Quartet playing Bach, but Caine plays a peculiar counterpoint on fortepiano that is less jazz than it is wildly harmonized modern music. “The Brass and Drums Variation” gives over Bach to a loose interpretation on trumpet by Ralph Alessi, accompanied by drums and a clarinet/trombone/tuba trio. “Turkish Rondo” is Mozart (specifically his piano sonata in A major, K. 331) as interpreted by klezmer/jazz clarinet, turntable art via hip-hop, and a full band including wailing electric guitar, violin, trumpet, and jazz rhythm section.

What is going on in these mad mixes sometimes sounds like pure high jinx. And there is a comic quality at times. Caine is more than happy for you to be tickled. Schumann’s “The Rose, The Lily, and The Dove”, for example, is arranged for piano and two voices, with one voice singing a mad gibberish while the other sings wordless but straight. But other moments are conventionally sublime—such as Verdi’s “Desdemona’s Lament” arranged as a modern jazz ballad but featuring a supple vocal of pure “Laaahs” and “Aaaahs” that run in traditional counterpoint to the piano. In the mix of these different purposes and techniques, a sensibility emerges.

I hesitate to call Uri Caine’s sensibility “post-modern”, as that word has been stripped of critical meaning for some time now. But the music on The Classical Variations is a seamless clash of opposites: “high” art (classical masters) and “low” art (hip-hop, gibberish, folk forms), serious intent and wacky humor, studied classicism and flowing atonality. And, in the age-old jazz duality, it also juxtaposes composition and improvisation, but in surprising new ways. The improvisers here are less likely to be “jazz players” blowing over Bach, imposing the blues idiom where it might not fit. Caine fashions these clashes of style more in the spirit of the avant-garde or of performance art—it is conceived as a whole and the improvisation is placed fully in context rather than tacked on.

The name of this is disc is, after all, The Classical Variations, and what Caine is doing qualifies as jazz or hip-hop style because of the way it reharmonizes, improvises on, and “remixes” a set of European masters. These are literally “variations”. But that word has always been part of the classical lexicon as well. Uri Caine, in fact, is fully within the classical tradition. He simply fails to follow the last century’s tradition of treating the “classics” with over-respectful kid gloves. Just as Franz Liszt felt free to rewrite other composers’ material to suit his own creativity, Uri Caine takes license. He creates variations.

The Classical Variations is more than a “greatest hits” package, what with all the unreleased material, and it is a consistent (if peculiar) delight. I would still more highly recommend one of Caine’s original discs focused on a single composer. The Goldberg Variations (Bach) is the most insanely creative, and The Diabelli Variations (Beethoven) is subtler, setting Caine’s keyboard work against a more traditional backdrop. But anyone who is intrigued by Caine’s wider canvas, The Classical Variations may be the place to start. A diabolical box of chocolates it is. But delicious.

The Classical Variations


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