In the mid 1990s, New York-based pianist Uri Caine recorded a jazz tribute to classical composer Gustav Mahler. He still seems shocked by the hoopla that followed.
"I think we were sort of surprised with the reaction that we got," Caine said during a recent phone interview. "It was recorded around 1995, and we're still playing it. We've played Mahler festivals around the world... I didn't realize how much of a fanatic base Mahler had."
This month, Caine is bringing his Mahler project to the University of Nevada, and he'll cap a week-long residency with a Nov. 30 concert. While at the University, Caine will share his expertise with students and faculty through master classes and other outreach programs, and he says he likes to tailor his presentations to the people he's working with.
"Some people like to ask questions, analyze, hear your opinion," Caine said. "Some people really want to play and talk about music that way. I'm flexible."
For the Nov. 30 concert, Caine will present his Mahler material, and he'll be joined by trumpeter Ralph Alessi, drummer Clarence Penn, bassist Drew Gress, saxophonist Chris Speed and violinist Josefina Vergara. He expects this group to bring an interesting perspective to the material, which uses Mahler's compositions as a base for improvisation.
"These are old friends of mine who have played it at different times, but we don't play it that often," Caine said. "It's not like we've played it to death. It feels fresh because we're coming back to it as old friends."
Along with putting his unique spin on Mahler, Caine has reworked compositions by Bach, Beethoven, Wagner, Schumann, Mozart and Verdi. For Caine, such experimentation was an organic process. He grew up studying classical music and has long had a deep interest in harmony and musical structure. So, examining classical compositions with an ear for improvisation is part of his nature.
When Caine released his Mahler recording under the name "Primal Light," he received a lot of attention, even receiving the German Mahler Society award for the best new Mahler CD of 1997. But not everyone enjoys Caine's approach. According to a 2002 New York Times article by Mike Zwerin, some Mahler Society jurors were "outraged when he won the award." The controversy has to do with the fact that some classical music aficionados view Caine's variations as impure. He seems to shrug the controversy off.
"In all these musics, there is a certain group that is very protective of it. You know, (they) look at themselves as purists, defenders of the faith," Caine said. "I'm really looking at it more from the point of view of an improvising musician who's trying to use different forms, different structures, different bases for improvisation than the types of jazz standards that we all grow up playing. I think the challenge for us as musicians is to play music that's coming out of the different traditions. In a way, you can improvise in the same way as you would over a Charlie Parker tune."
Caine said a close examination of a Mahler symphony, demonstrates that his improvisational variations aren't all that startling.
"One of the things that Mahler does, which I'm really sort of hooking into," Caine said, "is the idea that he'll take a melody or a theme or motive... and he brings it back but it's always transformed. It's always something that's been before but it's going another way or it's going on a tangent. In a way, that's like a big long jazz improvisation."
Although Caine will be playing his Mahler project at the University, his contributions to music reach far beyond his renditions of classical compositions. Caine performs in multiple groups, and he has recorded 22 CDs as a leader. He has also performed at many of the most prestigious festivals in the world, including the Monterey Jazz Festival, the Newport Jazz Festival and the Montreal Jazz Festival. In 2009, he was nominated for a Best Classical Crossover Grammy Award for "The Othello Syndrome," a recording based on the Verdi opera "Othello."