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Mahler Time: Uri Caine reflects on 'Urlicht: Primal Light,' 25 years on

Uri Caine
Roberto Serra - Iguana Press/Getty Images
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Pianist and composer Uri Caine in Bologna, Italy in 2019.

For the Philadelphia-born pianist and composer Uri Caine, jazz and classical music have long been two sides of the same coin. But he hadn't fully explored its spending power before creating Urlicht: Primal Light, his radically imaginative tribute to Gustav Mahler.

Featuring other seasoned veterans of New York's Downtown Scene, like clarinetist Don Byron and drummer Joey Baron, the album was released on the Winter & Winter label in 1997. It met with a strikingly mixed response — winning the German Mahler Society award as the best new Mahler album of the year, while also stirring umbrage. For Caine, it opened the door to a mode of interpretive license with the western classical canon.

He hasn't stopped working in multiple modes: his next album will be Agent Orange, a commentary on the Trump era he composed for the Brussels Philharmonic, with featured soloists including saxophonist and NEA Jazz Master David Liebman. His most recent release, meanwhile, is The Philadelphia Experiment Live at Newport Jazz 2017, a vinyl-only album documenting one of the rare convergences of a groove supergroup, with Questlove on drums, Christian McBride on bass, and DJ Logic on turntables.

As we close out the 25th anniversary of Urlicht: Primal Light, it felt like a good moment to check in with Caine. We recently spoke by videoconference about the album's legacy, the evolving dialogue between classical and improvised musics, and what he makes of the latest pop-culture fascination with Mahler's symphonic works.

I’ve always been interested in the convergence of jazz and classical music, and Urlicht: Primal Light holds a special place in that conversation. So I wanted ask first: how does it feel to think about this project, 25 years later?

I guess first of all, just how quickly time flies. That recording led to a lot of concerts, where it developed even more – to parts that were never recorded, but really got into some crazy areas with people that are Mahler fanatics. I discovered a lot about how people were judging different aspects of what you play. At a jazz festival, people would be like, “Who’s Mahler?” Or in a classical festival, they’re like: “This is terrible.” Or: “This is unbelievable.”

You just put your finger on something, which is the extreme response to the project. People either thought it was a work of absolute genius, or they thought it was a desecration.

That’s right.

Has that extremity evened out over time?

Uri Caine's Mahler Ensemble
Courtesy of Uri Caine
Uri Caine's Mahler Ensemble on tour in the 2000s.

I think it has. I mean, it was definitely new to me, because I was seeing that there was a certain context that people judge music in, which is normal. I think in certain areas it was a good lesson for us, as musicians traveling around day to day, seeing those extremes. Because I saw, first of all, that it affected different people differently. But for myself, especially if you’re the bandleader trying to get everybody to the next gig, it doesn’t even matter. So they hated it. This next audience today, I hope they love it. It’s not necessarily such a big deal. It’s something that improvising musicians have been doing for a long time, in different styles, even throughout quote-unquote “jazz history.”

As you alluded to, this project opened a door in a certain way for a suite of projects involving translation of the classical canon: Bach, Wagner...

Mozart. I did Verdi. I did the Diabelli Variations, which was also sort of important because I had to confront understanding that when people say “write us a piece” but they don’t improvise, you have to think of a way to structure it so that what they’re playing makes sense — as either a springboard to a improvisation, or just another area where things can happen.

Was the reception warmer in the classical realm than in jazz circles, or was it kind of equivalent?

I think it was equivalent, in the sense that people thought of it as something where it was sort of a deconstruction or a commentary, almost like a Talmudic exposition of Mahler’s or Mozart’s music. You know, when you’re coming from a tradition of improvisation that has now atrophied — to the point where when people play cadenzas, they don’t improvise, they play what somebody wrote out for them 80 years ago, 100 years ago — even that comes as a shock, that you’re actually doing something with that music.

I’m sure it does.

In terms of jazz musicians, I think that there’s definitely that side of people that think, when you start dealing with classical music, it implies that you’re trying make it more serious or whatever. They’re not dealing with it as this thing that you’re tangling with, you know what I mean? A thing that can actually set up an amazing improvisation, different than the type of things that you’re usually playing with a group. It’s a challenge. And you can set it up in a lot of different ways. So from that point of view, again, I understood what people were saying about it. And every composer, every project, implied: let’s try a different way. I mean, Mahler was really sort of a biography of his music, but the Goldberg Variations was about theme and variations, and the connection with chord changes. That you can have a 32-bar theme, just like in a standard. and go to town; Bach did it, and you can do it too.

Absolutely.

And then with Diabelli, the same, but even more intense. Now you’re playing against Beethoven. So how do you improvise against Beethoven constantly? Maybe that’s not the way to do it. When I did the opera thing, it was really just to get Bunny Sigler. I don’t know if you know who he is, but he’s from Philly. And he was a great soul singer. He just embodied Othello. I mean, I used to get together with him and try to write music and stuff, but when we got on that, we were like, “Man, we can do this.” And it just became this thing that I wasn't really expecting. So it’s like, why not? You know? It’s good to approach a lot of this stuff just practically, with the people you want to do it, and try see what happens.

Would you agree that the Mahler was not only the first, but kind of like the core of this? I almost see it as the beating heart of like this organism that you put together.

I mean, Mahler was the beginning of it for me. Because it was sort of an offhand thing that happened. Stephan Winter was the guy that had the record company. He decided to have this thing at the Knitting Factory: he had made a movie about Mahler’s life, which were just still images of Mahler with his brother. And he asked people like, “Who wants to play to this?” And, you know, when I was growing up, I was studying with this composer and one of the assignments he gave me, he just said: “Take Mahler’s Fifth Symphony and reduce it for piano.” Which was like, wow. And you know, I used to come home from school and try to start working on that. Then actually it started to become easier. So after that concert, he wanted to record it. And I said, “Let me do some more research on this stuff,” because I understood some things about Mahler’s life, but I had not necessarily gone deep, like I had with someone like John Coltrane.

Yeah. Yeah.

So it was a lot of things that were happening in my mind at that point, and I was getting a lot of encouragement from people that I didn’t expect. People like Ralph Peterson, may he rest in peace. I mean, when you see Duke Ellington doing the Nutcracker Suite — it’s that idea that you’re taking something well-known to a group of people, and then you are transforming it somehow. And if they know the text, it can have a certain effect. And then the question becomes, if they don’t know the text, does that matter?

Well, funny you mention that. Have you seen the movie Tár?

I want to see it. I haven’t seen it yet. Is it good?

I think it is. But the reason I mention it is because Mahler’s Fifth Symphony plays a pivotal role. So this piece of music has suddenly become part of the pop culture narrative — and in particular, that opening brass fanfare, which Dave Douglas plays to open your album.

First of all, I want to see that movie. But with these Mahler revivals, like when you read about him, you learn that a lot of his music was not popular. People took him much more seriously as a conductor. And then Leonard Bernstein sort of brought that to a certain thing. I checked out a lot of Bernstein when I was doing Mahler, and there’s this famous video where he starts yelling at the Vienna Symphony. They’re not taking it seriously. And he’s like: This is your music. You killed this. You know, it gets really emotional. And then they play their ass off. I mean, it’s a little Hollywood-y, but on another hand, yeah, that’s it. You know, I was getting a lot of unbelievable suggestions. Like, people in Spain would say to me, “You should do a flamenco version of De Falla.” And I would reply, “You’re telling me you don’t have thousands of amazing musicians that could take any of this music and do something amazing with it?”

You and I had a series of conversations around the time you released the Goldberg Variations, in 2000 or 2001. One thing that was fascinating to me, because I was writing for a Penn publication, was your experience in the music department there. Yesterday I was on campus sitting in on a rehearsal that Tyshawn Sorey had with Tak Ensemble for a New York Philharmonic commission. And, you know, that’s a handy sort of illustration of how things have changed.

Absolutely.

Maybe this isn’t a conversation about the university per se, but just more broadly: it seems to me that since you embarked on this project 25 years ago, there’s been a change. So many more conservatory-trained classical musicians are fluent in improvisation and the jazz tradition in some way — and so many more improvising musicians are actively seeking out orchestral or chamber settings. It feels like there’s a dialogue that wasn’t really that vibrant when you began this project.

 Uri Caine's Mahler Ensemble
Courtesy of Uri Caine
Uri Caine's Mahler Ensemble on tour in the 2000s.

Definitely. I think so many things have changed — and had to change. When I was at Penn, it was much more traditional. They didn’t even have jazz taught there. That was taught by the folklore department. They had some guy that would come in with these Charlie Parker records. And you’re thinking, “This is absurd.” I mean, the music is happening literally four blocks from this classroom that these guys don’t know anything about. So, I mean, that was sort of what my attitude was even then. It had to change, because the idea that there’s only sort of one way to do quote-unquote “serious music” — or any type of music, for that matter — it’s just not right. Especially in the academy, which was the realm of white, male, et cetera, et cetera. It has to change; it has to reflect what's happening. So I’m very happy about that. I mean, I don't think it’s really enough. It could be so much more, and it really goes to that whole thing of: what do all these different types of musics, and the cultures that they represent, mean? How do you sort of validate that?

And it’s interesting to think about this happening on the institutional level. There’s a lot of seemingly well-intentioned work being done along those lines, and I think The Philadelphia Orchestra under Yannick Nézet-Séguin is at the forefront of this institutional rehabilitation.

Yeah, he is.

But then, where I’m even more encouraged is at ground level, you know? Thinking about listeners who are excited for, you know, Davóne Tines and Caroline Shaw, and Judd Greenstein, and whoever else. And also listening to, Immanuel Wilkins or other improvisers.

Right.

It seems like there’s a of generation of listeners younger than either of us, maybe, for whom that’s just a matter of fact.

I agree. I think that it’s also just the availability of all these types of music. When you’re hanging out with other musicians and talking about stuff, you can check it out. It’s not like you have to go down to Third Street and buy the record and then think about it. No, you could see what it is, see what’s happening. It’s so much easier and so much richer than it used to be. So I think that’s another element of it. I mean, I think that there’s always going to be people that are very proud of what they think are the internal codes of what make their music or their group of musicians special. And that’s also part of the history. You know that you have people that are influencing each other in a certain period of time, or that it sort of becomes more amorphous as time goes on. But these things are recurring. It’s not necessarily that they’re new, but the idea that, yeah, there has to be sort of a breakdown in saying, “This music cannot be allowed in.” Why not mix these two things if you can really do it?

Nate Chinen has been writing about music for more than 25 years. He spent a dozen of them working as a critic for The New York Times, and helmed a long-running column for JazzTimes.