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All Things Close Enough

Some of today's best jazz strikes purists as not sounding like jazz at all

Though its champions insist the blues will never die, they know better than anyone that its survival rests on semantics—blues festivals nowadays celebrate "roots" music in general, much of it of only passing interest to 1960s purists who went hunting door to door for elderly bluesmen they recognized as a vanishing species. Jazz, too, has been threatened with extinction for quite some time now, though the double whammy usually cited as probable cause—a diminished audience and a dearth of household names—might not prove as fatal as the common wisdom that innovation ceased after Coltrane.

True, Coltrane took jazz harmony as far as it could go, and everything since has been a refinement of his methods or a reversion to Charlie Parker's. But that's only if we're talking about improvised solos, which is where we've been taught to listen for breakthroughs. What's been expanding over the last several decades, beginning with the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians' emphasis on collective interplay in Coltrane's wake and continuing with the reemergence of composition as a vital force near the tail end of the loft era, hasn't been the language of improvisation but the context surrounding it. So much so that in the case of eclectics like Uri Caine, Don Byron, and Bill Frisell—who all feel free to incorporate whatever strikes their fancy from the pop and longhair music they listened to between Blue Note LPs while growing up in the '60s and '70s—a good way to recognize today's most innovative jazz is hearing complaints that it isn't jazz at all. A common accusation is that renegades like Caine are playing their record collections. If so, at least those collections are larger and more varied than those of tedious contemporaries whose repertoire consists of nothing but worn-out grooves from Kind of Blue and A Love Supreme. In widening the definition of jazz to include all things close enough, they're also keeping it vital by extending its reach.

That said, it isn't easy explaining Uri Caine Plays Mozart to anyone unfamiliar with the pianist's earlier left-handed salutes to Bach, Beethoven, Wagner, Schumann, and Mahler. Imagine a gaggle of freewheeling improvisers—including a distortion-infatuated guitarist (Nguyên Lê), a trumpeter equally fond of Booker Little and ducks (Ralph Alessi), and a turntablist whose idea of night music is things that go bump (DJ Olive)—occasionally letting Caine and violinist Joyce Hammon coax them into a reasonably faithful rendering of a Mozart allegro or andante. But this doesn't fully capture it, because as often as not the Mozart precedes the mayhem, as when a minuet from the Jupitersymphony morphs into a habanera, a blues shuffle, a dirge by bassist Drew Gress, and finally a Liberation Music Orchestra-like march. What's more, even those passages that sound most impromptu—like when drummer Jim Black and clarinetist Chris Speed, taking their cue from DJ Olive's sampled calls to Muslim worship, transform a Mozart Turkish rondo into a blue rondo á la turk—further demonstrate Caine's compositional insight.

Uri Caine's not just playing his record collection
Robert Lewis
Uri Caine's not just playing his record collection

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A comparison with John Lewis isn't especially helpful, either, because even though Caine uses percussion-led crescendos as frequently and as artfully, his adaptations are nowhere near as straitlaced and starry-eyed as the Modern Jazz Quartet's sometimes were. Like FM DJs used to say when announcing tracks from Kenton Plays Wagnerway back when, Uri Caine Plays Mozart . . . to win.

Mozart—whose early piano concertos were enlargements of other composers' sonatas and really not so different from Caine's strategy of extracting new works from old—barely holds on to his powdered wig and pantaloons, but escapes with his dignity. For someone like me who's always thought of him as historically central but emotionally lightweight, the surprise is realizing how much I like him anyway—and how much stray Mozart I've been hearing in jazz over the years without wondering about the source. Could that twirling line from Sinfonia Concertante in E-Flat Major be the mother of Albert Ayler's anthems as well as Sousa's? Caine's only Mozartsolo feature, an interpretation of the three-part C Major Piano Sonata with the first and third movements separated from the second by ensemble pieces, prompts similar questions about the indirect origins of ragtime and Keith Jarrett's free-form ruminations. Not so much updating Mozart as undating him, Caine is tweaking jazz conventions as well.

Caine's latest side project is Moloch, where he's called upon by John Zorn to interpret 19 short piano pieces that are stylistically all over the map, ranging from weighty exegeses on Stockhausen to light-fingered exercises in a kind of modified boogie-woogie with a discernable Spanish tinge (though given the Hebrew titles, maybe I mean a Sephardic tinge). Always deliberately reminding you of something else, this is Zorn at his most encyclopedic and romantic, a winning display of his range as a composer. But what makes the greatest impact here is Caine's pianism, which is put to a greater test than on his own trio albums, where his eclecticism sometimes works against him by shrouding him in his numerous influences, beginning with McCoy Tyner and Herbie Hancock. I don't pretend to know how much improvisation there is on Moloch, though I'm guessing very little. It hardly matters in the end, because the record's rhythmic momentum alone lands it within the general vicinity of jazz. Along with large-scale projects like Mozart, Caine's finest showing as a soloist so far points to a major talent deserving acceptance on his own terms.

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