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


Coming Up in Philly

– The Prism Saxophone Quartet and pianist Uri Caine collaborate in a program at the World Cafe this Thursday, April 16 at 7:30 PM (The program is repeated in NYC on the 17th.) I’m going to be writing a piece for Prism and piano myself for next season.

Bowerbird is presenting an evening of “visual music” by composer and video artist Matthew Greenbaum at Temple University’s Rock Hall this coming Saturday, April 18, at 7:30 PM. The program features pieces that combine live performer with video. You might see this an extension of the live performer plus electronic sound genre so brilliantly cultivated by Matthew’s teacher Mario Davidovsky, but Matthew’s language – both sonic and visual – is very much his own.

– On April 19 at 3 pm, at the Curtis Institute, Network for New Music offers pieces by Michael Hersch, Jan Krzywicki and David Ludwig in a collaborative program bringing together Network with Curtis and the Print Center.



Harbison and Network

I’ll be picking up John Harbison at the Philadelphia airport tomorrow as he begins his visit in connection with the concerts, talks, and workshops that Network for New Music is offering. The concerts will be on Friday, April 4, 8 pm, at Temple University’s Rock Hall; and Sunday, April 6, 7:30 pm, this time at the Curtis Institute. Go here for more complete information.

My new piece, Meditation on Amazing Grace, will be on the Friday program – here is my program note on the piece:

My reflection on this familiar tune is rather darker than the version I used to sing to my twins as a lullaby: here I have cast the piece in minor, and framed it with harmonies that imply a key, but not that of the melody. After an introduction, the trumpet takes us through one verse, followed by a repeated and expanded version of the introduction now serving to accompany fragments and embellishments of the melody.

The troubled light I have shone upon the tune was purely a musical thought; but perhaps it has to do with theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s contention that there is no such thing as “cheap grace”.

I posted the first two Network videos previewing the Friday concert here; Uri Caine and Terrell Stafford are featured in the third:


Network on WRTI

Go here for a post about the April 4 and 6 Network for New Music concerts that will be discussed on Saturday’s “Crossover” program on WRTI-FM. I spoke with host Jill Pasternak earlier this week, and Uri Caine will also comment. The program can be heard Saturday morning at 11:30 am on WRTI-FM, with an encore Friday evening at 7 pm on WRTI-HD2. Both airings are available on the All-Classical stream at the WRTI website. UPDATE: go here for the stream of this edition of Crossover.

“Amazing” to-do list

Hard to believe it’s already been a week since I got back from my trip to Boston. I should have made more progress by now with the two tasks at the top of my to-do list:

– The first is to finish my piece for Network for New Music’s April 4 concert here in Philadelphia. This is part of what I have been calling their HarbFest, a week of concerts and other events devoted to the music of John Harbison. Network has commissioned a few new pieces for the April 4 program, all based on American folk tunes that John used in his chamber work Songs American Loves to Sing. That set will be heard, as well as new music by Anna Weesner, Terell Stafford, Bobby Zankel, and Uri Caine and myself. Harbison will join with trumpeter Stafford and students from Temple University to play some jazz tunes at the concert.

My piece is called Meditation on ‘Amazing Grace‘. I am using the tune in minor, with the notes of the melody treated as dissonant color tones above the accompaniment, rather than sounding the notes of the tonic triad. For example, the first two notes of the tune (in b-flat minor) are F-natural and B-flat, but these are harmonized with a G dominant seventh. The tune is played by muted trumpet, while piano and contrabass provide a long-ringing, floating accompaniment.

– While I wrap up that project, I need to keep up my practicing at the piano, for my half-recital (a program shared with Linda Reichert) at Penn is coming up on Feb. 26. I’ll be playing the Copland Sonata, Harbison’s Leonard Stein Anagrams, and, together with Linda, Gerald Levinson‘s work for piano four-hands, Morning Star. Linda will play the Philadelphia premiere of my Pure Contraption, Absolute Gift, and Vincent Persichetti‘s Winter Solstice. While I’ve already written about Contraption, I will try to offer some thoughts on the other pieces in the coming weeks.

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:


In 1980-81 I played jazz and classical piano in the bar of a Philadelphia restaurant called Frog, or “Frög” as the place’s logo would have it, with the umlaut and “o” supposedly suggesting the face of a frog. I played the late shift on Thursdays and Saturdays, playing, I think from about 8 until midnight or 1. Playing the early shift before me on Saturdays was Philly native Uri Caine, one of today’s leading jazz pianists. Although my bio says I have worked as a jazz musician, you may notice that it doesn’t claim I was any good at it, and this is in extremely marked contrast to Uri, who played the early shift so that he could go off to a more serious jazz gig after the restaurant job. I first knew Uri when he was an undergrad at Penn and I was a graduate student. Already at that point he had an uncanny command of an array of compositional styles, both jazz and classical, from all eras. When he played a piano piece he had created in response to a classroom assignment to write something in the style of, for example, Schumann, it was never quite clear how much he was improvising, so remarkable was his improvisational facility in classical idioms. It makes perfect sense that his best known music would become his work engaging classical pieces, such as his takes on Mahler and the Goldberg Variations. Uri would try to crack me up as I entered the restaurant by juxtaposing jazz and classical pieces – in the middle of a Cole Porter tune four bars of the Liebestod would suddenly appear, perfectly integrated – “I Get a Kick Out of You” indeed. This kind of facility and breadth also makes sense given that polystylistic composer George Rochberg was an important mentor for Uri.

I’ve been listening to a lot of solo piano recordings lately in connection with an upcoming project (about which more soon!), and the recordings have included jazz records, such as Uri’s 2002 release, Solitaire. While Uri can groove with the best, most of the pieces on this record don’t stay in one place long enough for this skill to be apparent. His imagination is too restless for him to play several choruses in the same general rhythmic feel. Sometimes the rapid-fire changes of tone put one in mind of John Zorn’s music, where the juxtapositions themselves carry expressive weight, as much as what is going on musically in each section. The piano attack tends toward the percussive – no Bill Evans influence apparent here. Sometimes the accompanying textures accumulate in waves of rhythmically irregular, nervous figures that do not suggest a pulse; other moments are clearly metrical, even evoking the gospel or down home feel that is one element of Keith Jarrett’s solo work. There are no genuine ballads here. On the other hand, there is what I take to be an improvisation on a twelve-tone row, (hey, it’s called “Twelve” after all), a set of apparently improvised variations on a twelve-tone row – stated baldly at first, then proceeding with increasingly shorter note values.

For comparison with Uri’s music, I pulled out Fred Hersch’s Songs Without Words, a three disc set on Nonesuch, and Jason Moran’s Modernistic. A superficial analysis would say that Hersch’s is the most traditional approach of the three – consistently rich harmonizations, no abrupt stylistic juxtapositions. But within that framework the work is fresh and highly original. Pointillistic textures that dart about the keyboard project Hersch’s rich harmonic palette in unexpected ways. “Caravan” is reconfigured as a sort of tango, with dissonances that are comparable to, but not identical with the alarming harmonic colors of the original. The aerated texture makes the acid colors more vivid. Hersch commands the most beautiful piano sound of the three artists. Debussy is part of his voice more than with Caine or Moran.

There is a big range of styles on Jason Moran’s Modernistic, and the pieces can sometimes break into a momentary freakout in a way that Caine sometimes does, but Hersch never does. Moran’s conception is unique in two ways: first, the use of special pianistic sonorities – sampled effects (Conversations With Myself for the 21st century) and a detuned (processed, I assume) instrument evoking a 1930s roadhouse keyboard – and second, the use of ostinato. It is a clever take on “Body and Soul” to focus on a repeated cadential progression rather the tricky harmony of the entire form. This is improvisation as simplification rather than elaboration – Holiday, not Fitzgerald.  An alternating hands gesture that would normally serve as a one bar fill in a piece like James P. Johnson’s “You’ve Got to be Modernistic” becomes the momentary focus itself – as in his treatment of “Body and Soul”, a fleeting detail is extracted and expanded, with provocative formal implications. Moran is willing to use straightforward ostinato textures as a framework in ways that Hersch and Caine are not. My sense is that Moran can do anything he wants at the piano, but his virtuosity is, like that of Monk, more compositional than pianistic.

All three men offer the satisfying pleasure of hearing a musician thinking out loud.

I do think those of us who focus on notated music are being irresponsible if we overlook the music of improvising artists. 35 years ago, one of my undergraduate teachers would ask us to avoid what he called “cigarette chords” – chords one should only hear when smoking cigarettes, meaning, in a piano bar. I think he was trying to discourage a simplistic approach to the post-Debussy/Ravel harmony that informs a good deal of jazz practice. But now I wish my own students could write harmonies that are as colorful, varied, and elegantly shaped as what you can hear in the work of Caine, Hersch, Moran, and other jazz artists.