A musical polymath with abundant improvising skills, pianist and composer Uri Caine convened his versatile jazz trio to kick off a weeklong residency at the Village Vanguard, with a concert broadcast live on air by WBGO and live online at NPR Music.
The trio, featuring bassist Drew Gress and drummer Ben Perowsky, played a free-flowing set of mostly Caine's originals, including the premieres of several new tunes. They moved as a unit; when one member ventured from the scripted chord changes, the others immediately followed, launching a new direction for the song at hand. Often the band ushered one number into the next without interruption, collectively improvising the segues.
At the piano, Caine seized many opportunities to launch dense chord clusters or loose, harmonically edgy runs down the keyboard. At times delicate and at others far from it, he also injected humor into the proceedings with a handful of gleefully distorted musical quotations. The trio ended the way their 2003 album (recorded on the very same Village Vanguard stage) begins, with a rollicking take on Wayne Shorter's "Nefertiti" that showed off their advanced hard-bop credentials as well as their post-bop creativity.
Always contextualizing older musical forms in new settings, Caine's work consistently refuses category. Within his extensive discography, he has recorded albums dedicated to solo piano performances, Tin Pan Alley, Jewish traditions and progressive electro-acoustic grooves with his Bedrock band. Caine's inventive jazz rearrangements of Bach, Beethoven, Mahler, Mozart and Wagner have garnered performance opportunities with leading orchestras, commissions from classical groups and heaps of critical praise. In 2007, NPR's Fresh Air jazz critic Kevin Whitehead lauded the disc Uri Caine Ensemble Plays Mozart: "In the end, his reworkings confirm the power of Mozart's melodies, both irresistable and indestructible. ... a miracle of tone, somehow respectful and overly familiar at the same time."
Born and raised in Philadelphia, Uri Caine came of musical age playing piano with hard bop greats like drummer "Philly Joe" Jones, bassist Jymie Merritt and saxophonist Hank Mobley. As a composition student at the University of Pennsylvania, he developed a love of the Western classical tradition while studying with two of its foremost modern innovators, composers George Crumb and George Rochberg. When he moved two hours north to New York, he soon fell into groups with fellow progressive jazz-informed musicians such as Dave Douglas, John Zorn and Don Byron. Since 1993, he has released nearly 20 albums as a leader alone.
In his trio, Caine practices yet another musical style he's always loved: modern, acoustic, straight-ahead jazz. But like the rest of his music, his piano trio reinterprets the status quo for the format. Like Caine, both Gress and Perowsky are as open-minded as they are virtuosic, using both Caine's originals and familiar standards as springboards for spontaneous, surprising forays into adventurous improvising. The trio's engagement refreshes their infrequent but long-standing association; appropriately, their only album together as a trio was recorded live at the Village Vanguard in 2003.