Caine Sprouts Chamber Music Chomps At Ambitious Brussels Fest

 Uri-Caine-Brussels1

One of the Brussels Jazz Festival's best gigs came three days before the end of its 10-day run. The Stateside pianist Uri Caine was commissioned to write a new work for the Brussels Philharmonic, and it was given its world premiere in venue Flagey's concert hall-sized Studio 4. During the first half, Caine revisited his 2001 'Diabelli Variations For Chamber Orchestra And Improvised Piano Solo', tweaking the legendary pieces by Ludwig Van Beethoven. The Philharmonic's core parts weren't noticeably revolutionary, but the tension revolved around Caine's almost continual jazz flow, as his elaborations created a huge playpen for spontaneous development.

The key points of pause and change were when he locked eyes with conductor Alexander Hanson, each agreeing on the next structural passage. Caine subversively introduced ragtime matter, even stepping boldly, right into the boogie-woogie realm. It was a striking new ingredient, this unpredictability, as he wove in and out of time with the orchestral flow, a scampering renegade, invoking the spirit of Danny Kaye. At one stage Caine ran through a sequence of lone plinks, isolated handclaps and a loud "atishoo", and then we were considering the legacy of Harpo Marx. This is not to suggest any comedic dominance: Caine's virtuosity is serious, but anything goes, as he makes contained flashes, flighty thwips and repeatedly runs his fingers from left to right, in time with the orchestral swells. Was that a snatch of a Looney Tunes cartoon theme there? Or a moment of Thelonious Monk or Fats Waller? Then some Cecil Taylor-Stockhausen hybrid? Caine might have been mocking the tradition, on one level, but he was also investing an over-familiar great work with a fresh sideways glance, his virtuosity perhaps not so radically unpredictable for the seasoned jazzer, but still generally ear-opening.

Uri-Caine-Brussels2

Following the intermission, Caine presented the world premiere of 'Agent Orange', for an even bigger orchestra, with three extensive percussion spreads to the rear, a harp and four French horns amongst the expansions. The composer was also joined by Dave Liebman (soprano saxophone), John Hébert (bass) and DJ Olive (turntables). Now there was no past baggage, as all the floodgates were open for a state-of-now barrage of complexity, dynamism, contrast and a natural welding of multiple forms. Caine was in a Romantic Zorn state, but with a Varèse-then-Zappa lineage, utilising the orchestral forces in massively confident fashion, sometimes even harking back to Carl Nielsen, or heading out across a John Ford cowboy prairie. There was a gripping surfeit of hyper-action, with recurring Liebman rebel-Gershwin tendrils, winding between the big orchestral blooms, as Olive gently scratched out slurred vocal vinyl, or made cosmic electronic bloops. Hébert's groaning bass stood out from the crowd, as we appreciated the perfect sonic balance between these massed elements. Caine himself was in an almost permanent soloing mode, but also vaguely subsumed for much of the time. Nearing the climax, 'Dixie' was fed into the chaos, and the orchestra shouted out "No! No! No!", as Caine's gloriously ambitious work exploded with an ultimate dynamic, surely anti-Trumpian excess. Long known for reconfiguring classic works by hallowed composers, it's as if Caine has fed all of this cumulative experience into his own monumentally elaborate, personal distillery.

– Martin Longley
– Photos by Michel van Rhijn

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