Uri Caine Meets Prism

The mercurial voice of Uri Caine‘s pianism met the polished ensemble work of the Prism Saxophone Quartet last week at the WXPN World Cafe here in Philadelphia in a program presented by Live Connections.

It’s always a pleasure to hear a jazz musician work over a standard tune – knowing the underlying structures of a piece helps you grasp more clearly what the artist is doing. But for Uri, “standards” include the European classical canon. And so he started with the Mozart Sonata in C, K. 545. It was more of a fantasia on the materials of the piece rather than an embellishment of a straightforward circuit of the form, though at times a good bit of the structure could be traced beneath the busy textures. There were moments when pulses moving at different rates of speed gave a quasi-cubist perspective, looking at the same material from two angles simultaneously. The playful wit of bringing Mozartean gestures into contact with bits of stride or with bebop harmonies, with the resulting contrasting textures juxtaposed at lightning speed, required both pianistic and improvisational virtuosity.

Uri was more restrained when he played over two pieces by Jacob TV, whose work I had not previously encountered. Postnuclear Winterscenario No. 10 was restrained and remarkable pretty, given that title, while Pitch Black combined recordings of Chet Baker’s voice with Andriessen-esque minimalism. There were two short movements by Matthew Levy, harmonically sensitive and beautifully written for the quartet. The program closed with the premiere of a big suite by Uri for both he and Prism, The Book of Days. The seven movements had moods suggested by the particular time of day and day of the week. “Friday 5 pm” evoked rush hour, while “Sunday 11 am” was time for the players to take it to church. The writing was lively and imaginative but quite dense, and seven movements of that kind of density, combined with a harshly amplified piano, made for a listening experience that was a bit wearing. But there was superb playing and vivid compositional thinking throughout.

l to r: Uri Caine, Zachary Shemon, Robert Young, Matthew Levy, Taimur Sullivan


Robert Levin on Mozart

The piano recital by Robert Levin that I attended last winter at Harvard, featuring music of Yehudi Wyner, John Harbison, and Bernard Rands, was dazzlingly good, but Levin is perhaps best known for his astonishing work with Mozart. Astonishing is not too strong a word, for he doesn’t just play beautifully, he improvises beautifully in Mozart’s style. Here are some fascinating videos. The first is an excerpt from the second, an improvisation on themes suggested by the audience that serves to close the lecture given complete in the second video – if you don’t have time for the whole lecture, at least give the first video a try.



Then this one on composing Mozart is the sequel to the previous lecture:

Recent Listening

Recommended discs new and old:

Live at Bradley’s II: The Perfect Set – Kenny Barron Trio. A superb set from 1996, featuring two Monk compositions, plus a Monk inspired Barron original. Barron’s piano is masterly, Ray Drummond’s bass warm and clear, Ben Riley’s drums subtle, the recorded sound exceptionally fine, and the groove astonishingly relaxed yet propulsive.

Mozart: Don Giovanni – Ghiaurov, Crass, Watson, Gedda, Ludwig, Berry, Freni, Montarsolo; New Philharmonia Orchestra and Chorus; Otto Klemperer. This is a classic release from 1966, with a (nearly) all-star cast. Gedda’s sweet timbre, and Freni’s freshness are standouts.

Daniel Asia: Of Songs and Psalms – Arizona-based composer’s latest disc includes his fifth Symphony – a song-symphony on texts by Yehuda Amichai, Paul Pines, and Hebrew and English prayers. It seems to be American composers who insist that the genre of symphony is not dead, with Harbison, Zwillich, Wernick, Hartke, Corigliano, and Rouse among the practitioners, alongside Asia. (Adams writes symphonies in all but the title.) The combination of vernacular texts plus Hebrew sacred texts in this piece recalls Harbison’s Four Psalms, but there the discourse is more obviously symphonic in scale (though it is not called a symphony). Asia’s piece is more of a song cycle, with relatively short settings. Its symphonic nature is more cumulative than apparent in the individual units. The text settings are natural in declamation and varied in character – from the Kurt Weill-ish “Through Two Points Only”, to more sober meditations. A Nonet for winds and strings rounds out the album with, crisp, clear, dissonant counterpoint, couched in an intriguing form – six movements, with 1, 3 and 5 brief variations on the same material, 2, 4, and 6 more substantial statements. Performances are excellent throughout the album.

Siren – Uri Caine Trio – Eleven Caine originals, plus “Green Dolphin Street”, all filtered through Caine’s polyvalent sensibility. Free stuff, hard swing, motivically economical atonality, tricky metric games – Caine’s is an eloquence that melds multiple voices. John Hébert, bass, and Ben Perowsky, drums, are his co-conspirators in music that refuses to be tied down. Here is a concert by the trio from the Library of Congress in 2010:


Sorry to not have been posting for a bit, will try to catch up in the next few days with some posts about CDs to which I have been listening.

For now, let me briefly note that despite the potentially morale-sapping news coming out of the Philadelphia Orchestra these days, they sounded superb at last night’s concert. I attended so I could hear Sir Andrew Davis, who conducted the premiere of my Songs for Adam with the Chicago Symphony last fall. The program was Mozart and Elgar – Clemanza di Tito overture, 4th violin concerto with Stefan Jackiw, and Elgar 1. Avery Fisher Grant winner Jackiw was very impressive: a slightly cold edge to the sound of his first entrance was quickly replaced by warmth and brilliance. He offered an encore, a remarkably languorous Bach largo.

Elgar is not my favorite composer, but last night’s symphony sounded more like chamber music than movie music. Davis and the Philadelphia traded richness and sheer beauty of sound for the more usual bombast associated with this piece, and formally it hung together better than it usually does.  The subtlety of Elgar’s orchestration was emphasized. Listening from the front of the 3rd tier in Verizon Hall was better than what I have experienced in seats lower down, where the orchestra can sound like it is playing from a greater distance than is actually the case. The program made me more appreciative than ever of how fortunate I was to work with Maestro Davis on Adam.