Interview: Uri Caine

Jazz, classical, and beyond
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“I like going out to play and being spontaneous and in the moment,” pianist and composer Uri Caine says. “But then you have music that you work on for months and years that comes together and you think, ‘Wow, I really needed all that time to work it out.’ I like the contrast between the two.”

Caine began his musical studies early. “I grew up in Philadelphia, and I started taking piano lessons as a little kid,” he says. “When I was around 12, I started studying with Bernard Peiffer, who was an amazing pianist that a lot of people were studying with. He was a classical musician that grew-up in France, but he ran away during World War II and went to New York and later Philly. Bernard had incredible chops and could play like Art Tatum. He was also a great person and teacher, and he talked about all types of music and music history, as well as the need to practice classical music, harmony and composition. Bernard also turned me on to another teacher named George Rochberg, who had me study a piece a week in a certain style and then write an example of that on my own. So even though at that time my focus was on being a jazz pianist, I learned a lot from him about classical music, and I used it as a way to get into improvised music.”

During his high school years, Caine would begin a fast-paced gigging schedule that continues to this day. “That’s when I really started playing around Philly,” he explains. “Philly had a lot of music in it back then—people like Kenny Barron and his family, the Eubanks family and many others. I was playing around town as a keyboard player in lots of places. Sometimes on Saturdays we would play all afternoon and all night. Then when I was around 17, I started playing with a local sax player named Bootsy Barnes and through him I met all of the drummers in town, like Philly Joe Jones, Mickey Roker, Bobby Durham and others.”

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Early on, Caine would split his work be- tween acoustic and electronic endeavors. “I was listening to a lot of Herbie Hancock, as well as Chick Corea albums like Now He Sings, Now He Sobs,” he says. “Plus all of the Miles Davis piano players like Wynton Kelly and Red Garland. When I look back on my time there, I was sort of doing different things. One was the straight-ahead jazz scene, and another was the new wave/electronic thing playing synthesizers with people like [bassist] Jamaaladeen Tacuma. I played a lot of keyboards back then, even on jazz gigs. First I had a Fender Rhodes that I schlepped around everywhere. Later I got a [Yamaha] DX-7 because it was easier to carry around. I also had a Minimoog and an Oberheim. I saw that there were other opportunities to play in different situations. One of the first recordings I made was with a drummer named Cornell Rochester that featured Gerald Veasley, playing music influenced by punk as well as funky things like Grover Washington Jr.”

“I ended up not going to a conservatory because I continued studying with George Rochberg at the University of Pennsylvania,” Caine continues. “But at the same time, I was out almost every night playing. I played all kinds of gigs, from cocktail parties and wedding gigs with big bands to theater and dance gigs and even playing in mental hospitals. One time I did a tour with Grover Washington Jr. where we played in every prison in Pennsylvania! I also became one of the ‘trio guys’ in Philly, where when people like Freddie Hubbard or Joe Henderson would come down, we would play with them. I eventually moved to New York City after graduating college in the early 1980s, and I began playing in a bunch of different scenes. I realized that as a keyboard player, you could really be in a lot of different worlds. There are a lot of varied skills involved, and even if those worlds don’t necessarily get along with each other, it doesn’t hinder your ability or desire to be part of them. You just have to go for it. Later, playing with people like Don Byron, John Zorn and Dave Douglas opened things up for me as well.”

Caine’s career started taking off after a series of acclaimed recordings that merged seemingly disparate musical styles together. “There has always been an aspect of improvised music that has looked to classical music,” he says. “I mean, even people like Duke Ellington and others referred to it, and also [pianist] Jacques Loussier and the idea of ‘swinging’ with Bach. I made a few records for a label called JMT that later became Winter & Winter. One was called Sphere Music and the other was called Toys. They were more straight-ahead kinds of records. Then in 1996, I made a record [Gustav Mahler/Uri Caine Urlicht/Primal Light] with my friends where we were playing Mahler. That gave me other opportunities to play festivals outside of jazz. We played in Salzburg, Austria in Mahler festivals, and all over the world. That led to other projects based on the classical music I had known as a kid. I saw that you could really study classical music by working on these kinds of things, and I really enjoyed the fact that I was learning a lot. In fact, I never recorded it, but I made arrangements for the group of three complete Mahler symphonies. Then I analyzed the harmony so we could improvise over them like playing a jazz standard. It was a lot of work, but you learn a lot from doing that. I also saw that there was a certain freedom that we brought to that music, so we did other projects too, like the music of Verdi. I tried to do things in different ways. The Mahler project involved getting into his biography, and I also tried to exaggerate and bring out some of the many ‘worlds’ within his music, like the Klezmer element, for example. Or the idea of having this beautiful music with a DJ soloing over it, or letting people in the group play. I also did a version of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, which is something I had heard since I was a kid. Bernard Peiffer had turned me on to the Glenn Gould recording of it. So I thought to myself, ‘Okay, Variations. Let me look at what Bach is doing. He writes a canon in every interval, and there are dance songs and drinking songs.’ So I tried to amplify that by writing my own variations that sort of mirror that.”

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Besides his genre bending “classical meets jazz” work, Caine continues working in a variety of musical formats. “I think it’s important to keep on playing as a pianist,” he says, “so I continue in that vein. I also have a group called Bedrock that is much more into the synthesizer/electronic drum-and-bass thing. Also, once I started doing projects within more classical festivals, I would get commissions and invitations to write music for them. So that’s another way of working, because I’m usually playing in those projects too. For instance, I have a whole group of string quartets that I’ve written, but I’m improvising as well. I also have some recent releases: One is a trio record called Calibrated Thickness with Mark Helias on bass and Clarence Penn on drums. We just did a tour of Europe and have some gigs coming up in the United States, as well. I also did a string quartet with a group from Poland, and I’m working on more projects with synthesizers and computers, as well as playing as a sideman in other people’s groups.”

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When it comes to keyboards, Caine spends a lot of his time working in the digital realm. “I had a lot more gear than I have now,” he explains. “I still have my Fender Rhodes, my DX-7 and an old Korg organ with drawbars, but I use a lot of software instruments these days because I’m mostly working in Logic and Ableton Live. So I’m using a lot of plug-ins by Native Instruments, Arturia, and Rob Papen. When I travel, I’m usually using just a laptop and a controller, because it’s a nightmare trying to take equipment on planes these days, especially since September 11. Now I usually rent a keyboard for shows, and I take a little Korg controller with me. It gets the job done.”

And what advice does this multifaceted, musical chameleon offer to the next generation of artists? “I know it sounds like a cliché, but I would say ‘follow your heart.’ In other words, there’s a lot of joy in working on music in different ways. And if you’re self critical and you have the opportunity to play, you see the things you have to work on and you revel in the chance to do it. Be as specific as you can, but at the same time, let the music you make be joyous. Don’t overthink it.”

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