Raising Caine continued

After 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 didn’t give the matter a second thought.
Byron 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 wasn’t 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 group’s performances (which would occasionally feature Byron, an African-American non-Jew, pattering in singsong Yiddish) turned heads all over the Continent.
Caine 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 don’t 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 don’t think a lot of people who heard me play in that group knew that I could play other types of music,” he says.
Fortunately, 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.

In 1992, having worked in New York as a sideman for six years, Caine gathered a handful of New York’s 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.
Sphere Music was an impressive debut, showcasing Caine’s 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 jazz’s 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. Monk’s ballad, “Round Midnight,” receives a graceful and sensitive interpretation as a Caine-Byron duet.
Because of a distribution snag, Sphere Music didn’t 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. Caine’s ensemble—now an octet—delivered crisp renditions of several Hancock tunes, including the title track, along with seven original compositions by Caine. “Time Will Tell,” the disc’s 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 Mahler’s First Symphony.
This proved to be a fateful allusion. Stefan Winter, Caine’s 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 York’s 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 Mahler’s music, intent on transforming the material but preserving—even celebrating—its essential character. He enlisted a group of A-list musicians for the task. They premiered the new arrangements, with Franz Winter’s film, to an enthusiastic crowd.
Even as the festival was going on, however, JMT’s American parent company, PolyGram Records—increasingly uncomfortable with the venturesome ethos of JMT’s artists and wary of its limited commercial appeal—summarily fired Stefan Winter and shut down the label. Ironically, this led to one of the most propitious moments of Uri Caine’s 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.

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