Uri Caine | Theater Critic's Choice | Chicago Reader

Uri Caine 

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URI CAINE

By 1997 Uri Caine had already made a name for himself as a jazz pianist--both in groups led by philosopher-clarinetist Don Byron and on a couple albums of his own, where he paid homage to Herbie Hancock and Thelonious Monk. But that year, when he released Primal Light (Winter & Winter), he made a name for himself as something else altogether. With that album Caine launched an ongoing mission to apply his sparkling technique and lucid improvising to the music of death-obsessed Austrian composer Gustav Mahler, which has to be one of the most surprising fusions that either the jazz or the classical world has ever seen. (Primal Light is a loose translation of "Urlicht," the title of a poem from the German folk anthology Des Knaben Wunderhorn, or "The Youth's Magic Horn," that Mahler set to music and incorporated into his second symphony in the 1890s.) Mahler wrote many great and memorable melodies, such as his other Wunderhorn tunes and the funeral marches of his first and fifth symphonies, and Caine has found lots of clever things to do with them: he's turned one into a vehicle for the wordless, shape-shifting singing of Arto Lindsay, for example, and applied klezmer rhythms and instrumentation to several others. (The latter is a not-so-subtle dig at the Jewish-born Mahler, who converted to Christianity in part to ensure that anti-Semitism wouldn't prevent his promotion to artistic director at the Vienna Court Opera.) At times it sounds as if Spike Jones were whispering in Caine's ear, and his high-handed eclecticism might seem like a revolt against the formidable weight of Mahler's oeuvre, but in fact Caine's just picking up where Mahler left off. Mahler tossed everything but the kitchen sink into his work--folk melodies, hints of the music-hall farces he conducted as a young man, musical symbols drawn from the mysticism that eventually enveloped him--and segued starkly between contrasting elements; in Caine's trampoline act things happen much faster, but many of the tricks are the same. Since Primal Light came out--and received the imprimatur of the International Gustav Mahler Society, which named it the most innovative Mahler recording of the year--Caine has recorded a live album of the material and expanded his repertoire to tackle Richard Wagner, though with less success. The septet he leads in Chicago stars clarinetist Byron, blazing young trumpeter Ralph Alessi, and DJ Recloose. Monday, 7 PM, Preston Bradley Hall, Chicago Cultural Center, 78 E. Washington; 312-744-6630. NEIL TESSER

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