Throughout his career, musician Uri Caine has gambled that he could find a niche in unconventional musical settings -- and he's usually won. His body of work includes hard-swinging jazz, contemporary imaginings of Jewish musical themes and controversial reworkings of hallowed masterpieces by Bach, Beethoven and Mahler. Not only has the 49-year-old Caine dared to alter the notes written by classical masters, but he's also incorporated decidedly nontraditional sonic elements into his recordings -- like D.J. effects and the voice of a Sephardic cantor.
For his next daring feat, as the composer-in-residence for the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra (LACO), Caine will debut a concerto for two pianos and chamber orchestra this month in Los Angeles, incorporating improvisation between his piano and the piano of LACO music director Jeffrey Kahane, as part of a salute to Mozart in the year marking the 250th anniversary of his birth. Caine's piece is hardly a clichéd "jazzing up" of Mozart. Instead, the new composition uses the Austrian master as a point of departure for a composition written in a contemporary musical language that is very much Caine's own.
"People ask me, 'How do we categorize this music?'" says Caine, who lives on Manhattan's Upper West Side with his wife, artist Jan Caine. "'Should we put it in the classical department or put it in the jazz department?' As an idealist, I say put it in both. See what happens."
LACO's Kahane, whose musician son Gabriel first urged his skeptical father to explore Caine's music, says that because of the composer's unusual level of mastery in multiple genres, Caine does far more than simply translate a classical style into a jazz idiom.
"He's literally reimagining the music and placing it in a great many different contexts," Kahane says. "His stylistic vocabulary is so vast, and he's so skillful in moving from one vocabulary to another, that he's able to use all these different languages as commentary on the piece -- and uses the piece to comment on other pieces, and other pieces besides the piece to comment on it. One of the wonderful things about Uri is that you don't know what's going to come out."
Caine has had his ears wide open to a broad musical palette ever since he was seduced by the jazz, classical, funk and pop music of Philadelphia as a teenager in the mid-1970s. His musical education also had a distinctive Jewish flavor; as the son of two professors who diligently taught their children "Eliezer Ben-Yehudah" Hebrew, Caine ended up hearing a lot of Israeli pop and Sephardic music. The family would sing Jewish folk songs together around the table.
"My parents grew up in the generation of young people after the Holocaust -- and they were embracing the Hebrew movement," Caine says. "They weren't religious necessarily, but at some point they thought about moving to Israel, even though they never left -- they still live in Philadelphia."
After studying with prominent composers George Rochberg and George Crumb at the University of Pennsylvania, and heading off to nighttime jam sessions that sometimes included jazz legends Philly Joe Jones and Hank Mobley, Caine spent time finding himself. After stints in Philadelphia and Israel, Caine decided in 1985 to move to New York City, perhaps the most vibrant but challenging jazz city in the world.
Caine credits his successes today to a willingness to stick with his musical vision through lean times.
"Follow that instinct," he urges young musicians. "It'll happen, if you work hard, and you can keep moving somehow."
Caine's critical buzz arrived with the release of Urlicht/Primal Light, a bold re-imagining of various Mahler compositions, released in 1997. While tradition-minded listeners objected -- some walked out in protest at a 1998 performance in Toblach, Italy -- the piece received a composer's prize for best Mahler CD of the year.
Caine thought of the Mahler project in the manner of a jazz musician interpreting an established work. Just as in the 1960s, Miles Davis would reconceive a tune written by Cole Porter, so Caine would transform Mahler's teeming stylistic soundscapes. Inescapably, some listeners saw the piece as an artistic reaction that embodied Caine's Jewish identity, because of Mahler's ultimate conversion to Christianity.
"Maybe, if you're a German, you're looking at the project as this New York Jewish person reinterpreting Jewish music -- on the one hand, that seems very racist, because everything is reduced to that," Caine says. "On the other hand, I understand it. Mahler's life is a very interesting subject from that point of view."
Caine is fascinated by the complexities of Jewish identity, but resents having the aesthetic breadth and complexity of his work reduced to a simple religious or political message: "The artist should be free -- I mean everybody should be free -- to like what they like, and not have to be pressured by the group."
Still, Caine is hardly dismissive of his Jewish background: "It's that conflict between an individual just trying to embrace different things and use everything that is out there. And also the reality that you come from a tradition. A very long, proud tradition of survival and innovation and creativity."
Caine's own work is also marked by inventiveness. And yet, say admirers, he's the rare bird who can take on intellectually demanding projects without drowning in pedantry. His work can be complex without losing its playful vitality.
Uri Caine will premiere his "Concerto for Two Pianos and Chamber Orchestra" on May 20 at 8 p.m. at the Alex Theatre, 216 N. Brand Boulevard, Glendale, and May 21 at 7 p.m. at Royce Hall, UCLA campus. $22-$80. For more information, call (213) 622-7001 ext. 215, or visit www.laco.org.