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Uri Caine finds the musical connections between Bach and Armstrong in his jazz interpretations of classical compositions.

Classical Improvisation


Uri Caine's radical reconciliation of jazz improvisation and classical composition is a natural for the Virginia Museum's adventurous Fast Forward program. During the past several years, the pianist has conducted inside-out explorations of the work of revered composers, including Schumann, Wagner and most recently Bach's "Goldberg Variations." The Feb. 10 program will be a return to the first composer in the series — Gustav Mahler. "Mahler included so many types of music in his work," Caine says, "marching bands, folk music, dances, blended into imaginatively orchestrated creative music. In a way, what we do is to exaggerate those elements. If there are folk elements, we make them more ethnic. We bring an improvisatory feel to his "Adagietto." The "Kindertotenlieder" (Songs for the Death of Children) is adapted to samba, which shares some of the same sadness and beauty." Johann Sebastian Bach's "Goldberg Variations" are a set of different treatments of a single melody. Caine uses the same melody and takes "the idea of variations to extreme. We played in a lot of different ways," he relates, "referring to Bach's own music with choral, or cantata, cello suite. but also imbedding history of jazz into them — Louis Armstrong's Hot 5s and 7s, lots of other references. It was fun to play that original music and use it as springboard for variation." While the Goldberg recording was something of a critical breakthrough, Caine continues to find new meaning in the music he will be performing here. "The Bach pieces are all fairly short. The Mahler is a lot longer, lots of improvisation going on all the time. We've played these pieces a lot, and have developed a certain interpretation of them. The way that we're playing, I try to bring a lot of emotional intensity." The approach may appeal as much to adventurous classical listeners as to jazz fans. "In Europe where they know the original pieces, I see people laughing; they get it. In a jazz club they may not know Mahler. "But I don't want to jazz up classical music — just adding a swing beat is not enough. I want to bring the skills of the musicians I am working with — to take advantage of their abilities, and to use these classical compositions as standards." In addition to praise, Caine's innovative approach has drawn fire from purists on both sides of the jazz/classical divide. "We've gotten a lot of reactions. In some places they love it. Some people think I'm disrespecting, and others call it reconceptualization." Caine is unfazed by the criticism. "Sometimes it says more about the people than what's in the music," he says. His suggestion to Richmond audiences: "Try to bring a open mind and an open ear. We're just having fun."

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