Jazz classicist (or classically inspired jazz keyboardist—either works) Uri Caine has always played several decks at once, fanning each hand as wide as it can go. He’s moved from tidy bop to funk-hop to improvisational Jewish music to Tin Pan Alley soliloquies to wonky/stately interpretations of Bach and Wagner without blinking. Tackling, then, a rejiggering of his most elegiac, socially astute work (for 19th-century Black activist Catto) and a fresh album of theatrical post-postbop is a piece of cake. Several pieces of cake, actually, all tall, thick, and in multiple tasty flavors.
The underprocessed original version of 2019’s Passion, a rich orchestral and choral work, may have had the most glorious of intentions. What it lacked, however, was a bottom, an edge, to its production value. So Winter & Winter & Caine remixed it for greater depth. At first you might not recognize the differences; open your eyes and ears, however, and Caine’s new Catto grows more darkly operatic and angry in appropriate measure to its ultimate subject matter, passion and freedom. “The Mob Burns Down Pennsylvania Hall” feels, as it should, like a rush of discord, with Caine’s tragicomic tinkling boosted alongside woozy brass, Stravinsky-esque strings, and raucous percussion. The falling-down flutter of “Murder” and its duel between scattered piano, marauding violins, and funereal trumpets could double for a Hitchcock soundtrack, one where the assailant’s identity is as mysterious as the victim. Via this new vivid remix, each “movement” actually moves, pulsating with the ideals of both Catto, the statesman, and Caine, the interpreter of the activist’s desire.
Caine’s Catbird—with saxophonist Jon Irabagon, bassist Mark Helias, and drummer Clarence Penn—is another animal altogether. Like Irabagon’s usual band of renown, Mostly Other People Do the Killing, Catbird is playfully avant-bop bip-itty, even when its improvs come across as disgusted (the funnily frenetic title track and its blunt follow-up, “Pun”) or blowsy (Caine’s funky Fender Rhodes-fed “Wetbed”). Caine surely maintains a sense of deep pleasure in all his diverse endeavors, but he must have been throwing his head back in pure revelry as these particular sessions unfurled. With drummer Penn moving from the unbound to buoyantly burrowing out grooves like the ones he did with Jimmy Smith, and Helias plying his trade in rubber-banded bass lines, Caine and Irabagon can fly even more freely than we’ve witnessed in the past from both gentlemen. And that’s been fairly free.
Spacious, slow and dramatic at times (“Entanglement”), cluttered and quicksilver too (the Irabagon-led “Stormy,” with Caine providing the unsteady principal pulse), Catbird is the young, vexing quartet setting you’ve wished for the Philadelphian keyboardist since forever.