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Raising Caine
Photo by Candace diCarlo

By Nate Chinen
Photography by Candace diCarlo

On almost any night of the year, a quiet figure leans over the dichromatic grid of a piano keyboard and plays. His instrument could be a gleaming nine-foot B–sendorfer, or a Steinway, or some funky relic with several busted keys. He might be onstage alone, or joined by bass and drums; he could also be up there with a violinist, a couple of horn players, a DJ and a choir. He might be dramatically spotlighted on the stage of a German concert hall; perched atop a temporary platform in an outdoor plaza; or wedged into a corner of a poorly ventilated Lower East Side dive. His audience could be quite large, very small or any size in between. What never changes is the act itself: sitting and playing, hands on the keys. That act is a theme on which there are countless, ceaseless variations.
    Lately it seems as if Uri Caine C’81 is never home. He’s off in Munich, or Perugia or Taipei. So it’s nice to catch him here, a stone’s throw from Central Park, on the Upper West Side. In his apartment building, Caine converses good-naturedly with a silver-haired woman at the reception desk. He stops to talk briefly with a young musician in the lobby. In the kosher restaurant next door, he greets one of the waitresses by name. The manager stops by his table with a handshake and an invitation to stay “as long as you want.”
    But as usual, he won’t be staying long. This past summer, Caine spent nearly the entire month of July and the first part of August on the European summer festival circuit. Home for a few days, he was leaving for China at the end of the week. His bold appropriations of European classical music—work by Mahler, Wagner, Schumann, and now J.S. Bach—have met with surprisingly widespread enthusiasm, along with the anticipated consternation. Encompassing an encyclopedic range of styles and traditions, his still-developing oeuvre holds much promise and poses many questions.
    Such big issues—expectation, promise—may lurk in the periphery during a conversation with Uri Caine, but they seldom come into focus. The pianist is not only laid-back but also wholly unpretentious. His basso voice rolls along in a measured cadence. His face—an owl-like, elliptical shape—wears an alert but studiously vague expression. He talks about his success in a tone that’s disarmingly matter-of-fact, as if it’s happening to somebody else.

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