Uri Caine Explores the Composer-Improviser Continuum
by Howard Mandel
Improvisation and composition - are they opposite poles on the spectrum of music-making, or two sides of the same coin? When category-defying pianist-composer-improviser Uri Caine debuts his multi-movement mini-concerto Double Trouble, commissioned by ACO, on February 8 at Zankel Hall, he'll face full on the longstanding challenges that raise this question, which might be posed another way: Are the aims and processes of composition and improvisation at irreconcilable odds, or compatible approaches able to be used in tandem to secure a single goal? Are they mutually exclusive disciplines or compatible practices, able only alone or also together to realize cohesive, coherent, sublime music? (The Feb. 8 premiere will be previewed when Caine is featured in ACO's Composers OutFront! at Joe's Pub on January 28.)
Few creative musicians today are as qualified or game to address these issues as Caine, nor as experienced in daring the unpredictable results of improvisation brought to composition. Few contemporary musicians on either side of the all-too-rigidly observed jazz/classical divide have so often wrestled with the core of the question, so evidently relished the tussle.
"A lot has been made of the relationship between jazz and Baroque improvisation," says Caine, the 51-year-old Philadelphia-born, Brooklyn-resident virtuoso with musical roots in both camps. Throughout an international concert and club performances and nearly a score of critically acclaimed recordings -- straight-ahead jazz live from the Village Vanguard to radical revisions of Mahler, Wagner and Bach including improvised episodes -- he's pursued the two idioms as if they're one.
"We hear about the use of figured bass, which is a lot like modern bass lines that anchor chord progressions for bebop improvisers," he continues, "about Bach involved in what today we'd call 'cutting sessions'; about Beethoven and Mozart entering competitions testing their abilities as both composers and improvisers, where they had to make up themes and variations. We hear about the great classical performers improvising cadenzas.
"But for some reason," he acknowledges, "that idea atrophied, and -- perhaps from disuse -- was pretty much abandoned. Today there are a lot of people practicing rigorously at music schools, but not so many concerned with how to improvise."
For Caine, improvising was natural and necessary -- he gigged on the local scene with such legendary jazzmen as Philly Joe Jones and Grover Washington Jr. in his youth, while studying at University of Pennsylvania with composers George Rochberg and George Crumb. It should be noted that Caine is not the first or only jazz musician who has adopted and adapted classical repertoire, more or less seriously: to name just two, French pianist Jacque Loussier made a career of "playing Bach jazz," and among Brazilian arranger Eumir Deodato's bombastic fusion-jazz productions are "Also Sprach Zarathustra," "Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun," and "Ave Maria."
But as both an improviser and composer-orchestrator, Caine is of a simultaneously freer and more rigorous school than the best known exemplars of the "Third Stream" (as Gunther Schuller dubbed classical-jazz hybrids in the late 1950s). He extemporizes as viscerally as a jazz avant-gardist (none other than Ornette Coleman, free jazz exemplar, was numbered among early Schuller-endorsed third-streamers) yet retains a strict thematic orientation, valuing classical works as inherently worthy of educated regard, besides de-and re-construction. Typically utilizing solo and/or collective improvisation as well as faithful (if distinctly original) renditions of complex scores' written parts, Caine's music is dependably well-informed, smartly played, serious and humorous, too. As produced mostly by the Swiss Winter & Winter label, it has been documented with admirable concern for high production values.
"I like the sound of things happening in a structured way -- things that aren't improvised, that have to be set up to unfold in a certain way," Caine explains. "I reimagine or recast famous pieces by important composers in order to establish different kinds of connections. I've orchestrated works for chamber groups and orchestras with which I've played improvisationally either as a soloist or with my trio. It's a wonderful opportunity, a different way of responding to classic compositions, expanding or contracting them and creating new textures. It's a good challenge to be spontaneous, and also to work things out."
Challenge may be the keyword: this is a musician who doesn't toss off standards. Caine has engaged in transformations of Beethoven's "Diabelli Variations," Bach's "Goldberg Variations," and pieces by Wagner, Mahler and Mozart, and considers what he writes of his own "reminiscent of a lot of contemporary music. It's for people who grew up improvising but enjoy classical music, too." Having named Double Trouble in part after a blues by Chicago singer-guitarist Otis Rush and in part for the dual nature of its piano soloist vs. the chamber orchestra, Caine describes the concerto as "dissonant in parts, or with the harmony moving around a lot; with a slow section that's much more tonal but goes out of tonality, too, and with some sections having a more pronounced tempo or groove or tonal center than others.
"There's one section meant as a cadenza, where the conductor is just guiding the orchestra through a rhythmic cell." And is he improvising all the time? "I have in mind some of the things I'm going to play against all this, and in the slow section they're already written out, but I could have improvised them. I both try to forget what I've written so I can react to it as freshly as possible and also keep these ideas in mind. The things I've set up are suggestive of how to improvise, but I also have an idea of the character of what I want to do."
As for the intersection of his improvisation and his scoring for the larger ensemble, Caine aims to confound if not confuse it. "I'm trying to keep things moving and obscure who is improvising and who is not. To me, the two different worlds have been mutually suspicious but the gulf between them is more about sociology than about music. It has a lot to do with how musicians are trained."
Perhaps so, yet the questions remain: Are the strictures, taboos and/or habits against mixing composition and improvisation beneficial or an impedance? Do they maintain the quality of music (whichever technique of music production a given work mostly adheres to) or do they empower new expression that reflects how we live and like our music now? Do they have more to do with what musicians and their audiences want or what they expect?
It strikes me that the real question isn't if music is improvised or composed, etched with a quill pen or Pentium processor, written for or recorded by someone playing viola da gamba or Electric Wind Instrument. Musicians and listeners consider music inspired or complacent, rewarding or tired, provocative or conventional, bracingly energized and iconoclastic or perhaps reassuringly and gratifyingly conservative. Is the music committed or indifferent? Communicative or irrelevant? What we want in music composed or improvised or an admixture of the two is a coin that, however spun, rings true. We want music that always sounds fresh, music that we want to hear again.
Howard Mandel writes about music that's new and unusual or time-honored and timeless. Author of Miles Ornette Cecil: Jazz Beyond Jazz and Future Jazz, a blogger (www.artsjournal.com/jazzbeyondjazz), adjunct faculty at New York University, and president of the Jazz Journalists Association, he can be contacted via www.HowardMandel.com.