When I first emailed Uri Caine to set up this interview, he was headed to Barcelona for a concert. When we finally spoke over the phone a week or so later, he’d just driven back to New York from the Newport Jazz festival. He’s a busy musician, performing across the world (before Newport he was performing in the Dolomite Mountains) with radically different groups—a jazz piano trio, a string quartet, larger ensembles, as a soloist—playing very different kinds of music.

VAN: You’ve been involved in a lot of different projects—The Philadelphia Experiment, Bedrock, collaborations with John Zorn. Do you approach those projects in a different way than your classical projects? Or is it all just an extension of the same process for you, playing classical and other types of music?

Uri Caine: Probably more the latter. A lot of these different strands of activity are things that I’ve either been working on for a long time, or have sort of evolved from stuff that I’ve done before. They all involve a certain amount of composition, a certain amount of arrangement, a certain amount of thinking about how the keyboard or the piano part fits in to the larger group. [You always have to decide] how loose to keep things, how much of the structure to keep, the structure itself, how the group interaction will work. In some of these groups, like Bedrock, it’s one process when you’re playing and it’s another when you’re actually trying to make a record, where in a way you’re trying to be more of a composer.

With the stuff I did, say on Mahler or the Goldberg Variations, it’s more a question of taking the music and figuring out what you want to do with it—leaving certain things open and certain things arranged in the beginning. Then you can start tinkering with it as you play it. So in that sense there are all the different parameters you can have with a group—you can have all the people playing composed music; you can combine with improvisers; you can have a piece where everyone is playing composed music and you’re the soloist and you’re improvising; you can have a piece where everyone is improvising but there’s some sort of structure with cues and arranging principles. It’s a continuum of these processes.

Would it be unfair to say that on something like the Mahler project, you took the third movement of the First Symphony and turned it into a kind of lead sheet for a jazz standard?

On that arrangement, especially the way we recorded it, the impulse is to say it sounds like Mahler, but also klezmer—you make that connection and arrange it like that. Then there’s the aspect that when you play it over and over again it kind of takes on a life of its own, it becomes transformed just by the idea of playing it night after night. I’m also letting that happen. I’m not saying, “I wrote it this way and it’s always going to be this way.”

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How do you choose which classical projects to undertake, which pieces and composers to adapt? Are they just things you really like, or do you try to keep things on well trodden territory?

As a kid I studied Mahler and orchestration, and then I got a chance to do it with a group. There was no plan, a lot of the music I ended up doing was music I’d known as a kid. So Mahler was like that, the Goldberg Variations were from becoming immersed with Glenn Gould. I also used to accompany singers, so I had experience playing Schumann, and it was always so stiff. I wondered what it would be like to play with some of the pop singers or gospel singers that I’d been working with.

Once I started doing these projects, people would suggest other music which I didn’t know so well for me to study. But eventually it becomes a sort of gimmick, not that I don’t still play that music, but at this point I’m more seeking opportunities to write my own music.

For the new album you made with the Lutoslawski Quartet, “Space Kiss,” did you compose all of it or was it collaborative?

I composed all of it. I was invited to Wrocław, Poland—there’s a jazz festival there—to play with my group, but they also said that there’s a string quartet there based around Lutoslawski. I was pretty familiar with his music so they asked if I’d like to do something for them as well. That became the genesis of that project.

I’ve worked with four or five different string quartets. I like working with string quartets; they’re very cohesive and usually very intense groups. The Lutoslawski Quartet is the same.


Uri Caine and the Lutoslawski String Quartet at the Jazztopad Festival in 2016.

Do you think classical musicians approach improvisation differently than jazz musicians?

Yes, in the sense that a lot of classical musicians will say that they improvise, but the style in which they improvise is “avant-garde”—effects, noises, etc. It’s much more difficult for many of them to play over harmonic forms because it’s not something they practice as much as jazz musicians do. So even though you’d think it’s actually something that might be easier for them, you realize that it’s a language, and they’re just not fluent in the same way (with the proviso that things change and there are always people coming into the scene who can improvise that way).

There are also people who improvise in a “baroque style”—they sort of come out in front of the audience and say, “give me a theme and let me improvise on that,” and maybe to a certain extent they’ve worked something out already and just incorporate it. But you could say the same thing about many jazz musicians who claim to improvise and basically just play a different set of clichés every night. In the end it really does not matter, but obviously if you’re conscious of trying to broaden your horizons and do different projects you realize that the improvising on one piece has to consist of a different feeling, a different technique, different ideas, than on another. It’s not just one thing—there’s a lot of nuance involved in it.

I had a teacher growing up who liked the Third Stream movement, like Gunther Schuller, or the Modern Jazz Quartet. They were interested in classical music and in “classing up” jazz. Your music is very different from Third Stream—it’s more of a real fusion between jazz and classical—but I’m wondering if you were influenced by them at all when working on your classical projects.

I was aware of that music, and a lot of the time it is the way you’re describing. It doesn’t seem like it was very strong on improvisation, and maybe it didn’t even need improvisation. But having said that, just the idea that you could take this music, like a Bach prelude, and solo on it [was valuable]. On the one hand you [might] think: “That’s a classical style and you really shouldn’t do that,” but of course if you’re young you think: “If someone tells me not to do that I’m going to try to do it.”

I started to become especially interested in the pianists. I was practicing Bach, and I’d ask, “What are the chords in this Bach?” Then I’d say, “oh, it’s sort of like a standard”—you’re making that association in your own mind. Then it becomes natural to start playing those things and to improvise over them if you’re thinking about it in terms of the harmonic structure of the piece.

Have you faced any conservative backlash against these projects?

Yes, I’ve certainly faced backlash. I’m definitely aware that certain people have written about it, or told me to my face, “It’s terrible what you’re doing. You should do something else.” Whatever they say, it’s fine. They can do whatever they want. And it’s instructive because on some level it helps you refine what you’re trying to do.

In both the classical adaptations and the string quartet work you’ve done there seems to be a healthy sense of humor to it all. I’ve seen some critics call your work “postmodern.” There seems to be a gentle mockery as well as a reverence for the material.

In Mahler’s case the mockery is already there in the music. He can be very sarcastic and theatrical. All those different aspects of the music are emphasized by the way that we play it. Like the First Symphony—every orchestra plays it differently—but what Mahler seems to be doing is bringing in elements of klezmer music, so why not just make that more explicit by having actual klezmer improvisation based on that music?

For me it’s a work of discovery. When you work with music that way, you have to arrange it and rearrange it, change it around for different players—you’re working with the real material of the music. There’s not really a philosophy of how to present it—the idea is that it becomes very flexible, and there’s a certain enjoyment of that manipulation of musical material in the moment.

You’ve played with musicians like Dave Douglas and John Zorn and Don Byron who, like you, mess around with genre boundaries and kind of eradicate them. A lot of composers and groups are expanding the sonic palette of classical music and I was wondering if, looking forward, you think we’re headed towards a sort of erasure of genre boundaries.

You know, I think that’s a process which is happening all the time in music. If you look at classical music, composers integrate aspects which weren’t considered “acceptable” at the time. Mahler and Mozart are good examples of that—people who brought in different influences that in their time seemed very unnatural. Today it’s almost hard to hear it. If you hear people marching through Vienna with cymbals and you’re like, “I want that in my music, even though I never thought I would”—there’s the sound. Everybody can do that. It’s not something you consciously think of, but sometimes when you’re working on a piece it does happen. You try something and see if it works and decide, “that actually sort of works here,” which gives you a certain interest in trying other things. I know that people want to interpret these things—you used the word postmodern—maybe there is an element of that, but it’s not so helpful to think that way when you’re actually trying to make the music. To just make things work, as you’re working on them—that’s the way I see it. ¶

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Jake Romm’s writing and photography have appeared in Inkstick Media, The New Inquiry, Hyperallergic, Protean Magazine, Yogurt Magazine, The Brooklyn Rail, Midnight Sun, VAN Magazine, and elsewhere. He...