graduating in 1981,
Caine spent the rest of the decade as a sideman in a wide range of groups.
In Philadelphia, his buoyant swing, quick reflexes, and broad musical
understanding earned him the status of a first-call player. But after
moving to New York in 1985, the pianist found himself swimming in a much
larger pond. I was sort of scuffling, he now admits. So when, in 1990,
the clarinetist Don Byron asked him to join a brand-new group on a European
tour, he didnt give the matter a second thought.
was then just emerging as a major jazz artist, and this was the project
that would catapult him into the public spotlight. Curiously enough, Byron
wasnt leading a jazz ensemble so much as a klezmer band; their aim was
to pay tribute to the musical satire (and substance) of Jewish clarinet
virtuoso Mickey Katz. The incongruity of this groups performances (which
would occasionally feature Byron, an African-American non-Jew, pattering
in singsong Yiddish) turned heads all over the Continent.
appreciated the Mickey Katz opportunity, even though the klezmer revival
had limited appeal for him. Unlike most of the Jewish musicians in the
movement, who used the music as a bridge to a heritage lost in assimilation,
Caine came from a very culturally conscious family. I spoke Hebrew in
my house, he says. So I dont feel so much that need to embrace it;
I know where to find it. He was also concerned that it would restrict
his stylistic options. I dont think a lot of people who heard me play
in that group knew that I could play other types of music, he says.
Byron featured Caine in other projects, including a jazz quintet and a
modern chamber group called Semaphore. Of the latter ensemble, Byron recalls:
We played Webern, Messiaen, stuff like that. And [Uri] was good for that,
too. He was somebody I could play a lot of different stuff with. This
mutual stylistic range made Byron and Caine natural collaborators, and
they still work together often. A few hours after I spoke with Byron in
mid-September, he left New York for Buenos Aires, where he and Caine were
scheduled for two duo performances.
having worked in New York as a sideman for six years, Caine gathered a
handful of New Yorks most adventurous straight-ahead musicians and bankrolled
his own recording session. The resulting album, Sphere Music, was
picked up by the German JMT label and released that year in Europe.
Music was an impressive debut, showcasing Caines instrumental prowess
as well as his adhesive abilities in a group setting. The album also revealed
a previously unheralded compositional gift; of particular note was a gem
called Jelly, in which Caine summons the piano styles of not only jazzs
self-proclaimed inventor, Jelly Roll Morton, but also early stride-piano
legend Fats Waller and avant-garde maverick Cecil Taylor. He also rendered
two songs by Thelonious Sphere Monk, for whom the album was named. Monks
ballad, Round Midnight, receives a graceful and sensitive interpretation
as a Caine-Byron duet.
of a distribution snag, Sphere Music didnt appear in the U.S.
until 1995. By then, Caine had toured in Europe as a leader. He had also
recorded another album. Toys picked up where its predecessor had
left off, this time saluting the pianist Herbie Hancock. Caines ensemblenow
an octetdelivered crisp renditions of several Hancock tunes, including
the title track, along with seven original compositions by Caine. Time
Will Tell, the discs opener, is a propulsive, salsa-tinged workout that
barrels through several different time signatures (including a seamless
15/8). It also features a recurring bass figure borrowed from an unlikely
source: the first movement of Mahlers First Symphony.
proved to be a fateful allusion. Stefan Winter, Caines producer at JMT,
took special note of the reference; his brother Franz had recently completed
a silent film about the German composer, which was scheduled to be screened
at New Yorks Knitting Factory club in November 1995 as part of a mini-festival
celebrating the JMT label. The Winter brothers asked Caine to devise a
Mahler program that could be performed as the movie was projected: a living
soundtrack. Caine spent the better part of that year immersed in Mahlers
music, intent on transforming the material but preservingeven celebratingits
essential character. He enlisted a group of A-list musicians for the task.
They premiered the new arrangements, with Franz Winters film, to an enthusiastic
as the festival was going on, however, JMTs American parent company,
PolyGram Recordsincreasingly uncomfortable with the venturesome ethos
of JMTs artists and wary of its limited commercial appealsummarily fired
Stefan Winter and shut down the label. Ironically, this led to one of
the most propitious moments of Uri Caines career. With the rubble of
JMT still smoldering behind him, Winter set the wheels in motion to start
his own company. He wanted the Mahler project to be its first release.