Jazz and classical music have a lot in common these days—a niche market, strong institutional support, sagging record sales—but when it comes to rhythm and harmony, they’re often far apart. While the two have certainly influenced each other, attempts to combine them typically falter, diluting both musical genres into poly-stylistic mush. This isn’t to say that creating a satisfying hybrid is impossible, just that it’s a difficult border to navigate.
Pianist Uri Caine has made a living on this border, borrowing generously from both jazz and classical music since the start of his career. Caine spent a busy two days at the University as a Presidential Fellow in the Arts, giving a workshop and solo piano performance on Monday before taking the stage on Tuesday night for an unconventional performance of Mahler and Mozart that exposed the pitfalls inherent in musical experimentation but ultimately showcased the illuminating power of his approach.
The first half of the concert featured six of Mahler’s works, which Caine and his group mined for their latent stylistic possibilities. Trumpeter Ralph Alessi and clarinetist Moran Katz imbued “Symphony No. 1, Third Movement,” with a heavy klezmer spirit that violinist Joyce Hammann further amplified with her excellent solo work—especially in the introduction to the Mahler fragment “Two Blue Eyes.” With Caine, bassist Drew Gress, and drummer Ben Perowsky providing rhythmic support, the impact of Jewish music on Mahler’s own artistic conception was brought to the fore, an effect that would be difficult in a more orthodox reading.
On several pieces, Caine, Gress, and Perowsky would break into a straight-ahead jazz trio, leaving Mahler behind almost entirely in favor of syncopation and swung eighth notes. These were fine moments on their own—Caine is a formidable virtuoso, and Grees and Perowsky are sensitive rhythmic players—but they felt out of place amid the rest of the music.
When the group maintained a strong rhythmic cohesion, Mahler’s music snapped with a jazzy verve that honored both the composer and his interpreters. When the group lost its propulsive energy—typically on slower numbers when Perowsky eased up on the toms—the music felt unmoored, drifting in three directions at once through a musical no-man’s-land.
Playing Mahler’s music, Caine and his group put forward plenty of worthy ideas but failed to bring many of them to fruition, as the ambition of the project outpaced its execution. The second half of the concert, which featured six of Mozart’s compositions, was far more successful, bursting with playful exuberance. Caine began the set alone, with a rendition of “Piano Sonata in C” that set Mozart’s melody against a string of jazz harmonies before breaking into a dashing improvisation. When the entire group reassembled, they laid out a driving, dark texture that gradually picked up force until it exploded into the familiar melody of the first movement of Mozart’s “Symphony No. 40.”
Again, the drumming of Perowsky proved crucial to the music’s success. When he played heavily on the bass drum, the music jumped with energy and wit while staying nicely grounded. Throughout the concert, his playing stayed mostly in the jazz tradition, but it took on a more classical texture when appropriate, most noticeably in his clipped articulation on “Sinfonia Concertante.”
While most of the concert focused on using jazz as a means to interpret classical composition—what Caine, following the performance, would call “accentuating [the music] and trying to return it to the root of its influences”—a third musical element, electronic music, made a brief but forceful appearance. Caine was billed as playing piano and laptop, but he hardly touched his computer during the first half of the show. In the second half, it was used almost as sparingly until a disembodied voice began wailing through the speakers to signal the start of “Turkish Rondo.” This wailing continued as the musicians started to play, taking Mozart out of the palace and tossing him into the bazaar. It was a gleeful number—a funny concept leading to a provocative delivery.
Caine creates poly-stylistic music by extracting diverse ideas from the compositions themselves rather than imposing an external and awkward reading. The awkwardness of some of the Mahler interpretations stemmed from a failure to foster a harmonious dialogue between the jazz and classical, opting for a common denominator that didn’t capture the most immediate elements of either style. Perhaps it was the structure of Caine’s Mozart interpretations that facilitated their often dazzling success. In his post-concert remarks, Caine said that Mozart’s compositions were so perfect that they allowed room for improvisation only in the parts in which the piece was developing. With this somewhat guarded approach, Caine and his group stayed close to the piece even as they expressed new stylistic and textural possibilities. In his enterprising night at Mandel Hall, Caine showed that it’s best to keep both feet on the ground, especially when your head is in the clouds.