Become a member and get exclusive access to articles, live sessions and more!
Start Your Free Trial

Uri Caine/Gustav Mahler: Dark Flame

It’s all well and good to talk of postmodern maneuvers and profusions of genres and even relentless experimentation when discussing Uri Caine’s takes on the songs of Gustav Mahler, 1997’s Urlicht/Primal Light and the new Dark Flame. But those vague catchphrases don’t really describe what Caine is doing with (or to, or near) Mahler’s music. When Caine responds to the melodies, rhythms and texts of Mahler’s originals, he doesn’t merely change his own rhythms and melodies, as jazzmen have since time immemorial, but changes styles completely-and since Mahler embraced an eclectic style himself, Caine can really pull out anything he can think of.

Caine will disrupt the texture of a song for an individual word: When a stray lyric in the children’s rhyme “In Praise of Lofty Judgement” suggests frustration, a breakbeat and a general uproar completely dissolve the previous carnival-barking atmosphere. He makes his music respond to the context of texts: Since the German words of Mahler’s “The Lonely One in Autumn” was drawn from a poem by Tchang-Tsi, Caine takes it back to its Chinese roots using the original text and adding a yanquin and dizi hovering in the background. He uses changing styles to unearth subtexts: The lyrics of “Song of the Prisoner in the Tower” suggest desires that may be caged as well, so Caine gets German actor Sepp Bierbichler to bark out the male part in stolid German and spikes it with brusque electric guitar, while performance poet Julie Patton coos some adapted, seductive lyrics in English.

And, of course, Caine changes styles to suit melodies; while “St. Anthony of Padua Preaches to the Fishes” gets a (mostly) straight swinging workout, “Only Love Beauty” sounds to Caine both like a plea to the creator and to the muse, so he visits it twice, laying Barbara Walker’s gospel exhortations over the restrained Kettwiger Bach Choir the first time and joining other musicians to play a wordless, heartfelt rendition to close the album.

All this may sound chaotic in summary, but Caine isn’t simply smashing disparate styles up against one another and relying on the cognitive disjunct to stir the listener. Even when “Two Blue Eyes” shifts from lumbering accompaniment to synagogue cantor Aaron Bensoussan to a hot jazz workout and then to original poetry by Shulamith Wechter Caine, the pain and loss in Mahler’s song and Caine’s interpretation unifies it all. Every choice Caine makes serves a clear-eyed imaginative vision of the possibilities of Mahler’s music, no matter how complicated the execution of that vision becomes.

It helps that Caine has some partners who can play what he thinks. Twenty musicians and the aforementioned choir make contributions on Dark Flame, but trumpeter Ralph Alessi, drummer Jim Black, clarinetist Don Byron, violinist Mark Feldman and bassist Michael Formanek are the ones who play on most of the tracks. These men meet the demands Caine places on them and then some, playing eloquently in whatever style currently dominates the texture. All the vocalists make characterful contributions, particularly Sadiq Bey, whose poem on “Labor Lost” is wry and lovely at once. Caine, meanwhile, makes his pianistic presence felt everywhere as well, with typically imaginative and vital takes on whatever musical material his arrangements provide. And that’s appropriate, for ultimately Caine’s fearless mix of diverse skills and styles is what makes this Dark Flame so lustrous and intoxicating.

Originally Published