Keyboardist Uri Caine loves to surprise audiences and critics by never doing what they expect him to do. Unfortunately, there aren't many unexpected twists or turns on Philadelphia Experiment's self-titled debut, Caine's latest project, which is a collaborative funk workout matching him with superb bassist Christian McBride and drummer Ahmir Thompson, who is much better known in the rap and hip-hop worlds for his contributions to The Roots. Philadelphia Experiment also includes contributions from guitarist Pat Martino and trumpeter John Swana, plus string arrangements from Larry Gold. There is little wrong in the strictest sense with these songs. In fact, some tunes, like their rendition of Sun Ra's "Calling All Demons" or the collaborative work "Lesson #4," effectively feature Caine's trademark swift solos and darting lines, McBride's explosive bass accompaniment and Thompson demonstrating he can also drive a song's beat rather than just react to it.
What's missing from the date is any sense of adventure or drama. The trio frequently hit cruise control, gliding through the pop and funk selections without any verve, individuality or energy. Their renditions of Marvin Gaye's "Trouble Man" and Bill Withers and Grover Washington Jr.'s "Just the Two of Us" are more cute turns than substantial musical exploration. Their two-song, supposed tribute to the '70s jazz band Catalyst has none of the explosiveness or depth that charter member and tenor saxophonist Odean Pope offered in his solos (even though his blistering approach was confined by the group's restrictive compositions).
Both "Philadelphia Freedom" and "Mr. Magic" are simple tunes that Elton John and Grover Washington made classics purely by their performances. Caine actually provides a far more rigorous solo than Washington did on "Mr. Magic," yet his searing keyboard journey seems utterly empty when contrasted to Washington's simpler, far more soulful initial trip.
Caine is unquestionably an outstanding pianist, and he's working here alongside many other great players. But less technique and more empathy was needed here, something that many first-rate improvisers often overlook when they tackle songs that have a simpler structure but ultimately require just as much concentration and understanding as a more difficult tune.