Where in the world is Uri Caine? It’s a good question because the answer is constantly changing. Geographically, he’s all over the place. When we spoke with him last week by telephone, he was in Toronto for the premiere of a string quartet plus piano composition called Jagged Edges at the Toronto Royal Conservatory of Music’s 21st Century Music Festival. From there, he was off to Italy, where he would team up with legendary free-improvising percussionist Han Bennink for a project they call Sonic Boom. After a few more stops and some duets with his longtime collaborator Dave Douglas, he’d head to Spain for the premiere of a new symphonic composition commissioned by the Symphony Orchestra of Cordoba. But don’t worry; those Cordoba concerts are on June 6 and 8, leaving the ostensibly New York–based Caine plenty of time to reach Ojai, where he’ll play multiple concerts over the course of the 2014 Ojai Music Festival’s four-day span.
Caine’s remarkable mobility in physical space is more than matched by his freedom to come and go as he pleases across musical borders. On Thursday night, Caine and his group will play arrangements of music by Gustav Mahler, then it’s his version of George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue on Friday night, and finally, the Goldberg Canons of Johann Sebastian Bach, Caine’s way, on Sunday morning. This represents quite a challenging program for any pianist, especially with the sophisticated ears of the Ojai Festival audience listening intently to every note.
Asked about the extraordinary range and deeply unpredictable juxtapositions that abound in his musical output, Caine said, “a lot of the stuff I do comes from things not turning out to be what I expected them to be,” like his rediscovery of Mahler’s klezmer roots, for example. By way of clarification, Caine added that his musical choices often involve “one small thing that somehow leads to another.” In the case of his multiple featured appearances this year at Ojai, that “one small thing” was the high regard fellow pianist and 2014 Ojai music director Jeremy Denk has for Caine and his expansive musical imagination. “Jeremy and [festival artistic director] Tom Morris were really interested in hearing some of the music on the first Mahler record [1997’s Urlicht/Primal Light] again,” said Caine, “and they encouraged me to re-create something like that group. They even insisted that I get a cantor to sing ‘The Farewell’ for this concert.” Caine is referring to a rather amazing arrangement he made of music from Mahler’s “The Song of the Earth,” which includes singing in Hebrew.
This won’t be the first time that the Ojai Festival has embraced jazz. Eric Dolphy performed a flute composition by Edgard Varèse there back in 1962, and the Bad Plus performed their arrangement of Igor Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring” for jazz piano trio just last year. But the scope and ambition of what Caine will do this June still feels somewhat unprecedented. On Friday night, he will return to “accentuate certain aspects” of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, he explained. Joined by an ensemble of longtime collaborators that includes the dynamic violinist Josefina Vergara, Caine will “open up” Gershwin’s cadenzas to uncover the music’s roots in klezmer and jazz. Asked how he felt being part of a new generation of improvising pianists who participate consistently in 21st-century classical music — along with the Bad Plus’s Ethan Iverson, and Timo Andres (see adjacent article) — Caine replied that “there’s no question that we’ve all been thrust into new situations, but as a pianist, you come to expect that.” Here’s to expecting the unexpected when Caine sits down to play this Thursday.