Fusion? You ain't heard nothing like this

What distinguishes jazz from classical music? Nick Kimberley talks to Uri Caine, the jazz pianist who has reinterpreted Bach
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The Independent Culture

The vast Fiat factory in Turin no longer makes cars. It now houses a ritzy hotel, a conference centre and a 2,000-seater auditorium. As post-industrial make-overs go, it pales beside the musical transformation that took place last month in the auditorium. The bill announces a performance of Bach's Goldberg Variations, whichwere written for solo keyboard; sure enough, there is a piano centre-stage.

The vast Fiat factory in Turin no longer makes cars. It now houses a ritzy hotel, a conference centre and a 2,000-seater auditorium. As post-industrial make-overs go, it pales beside the musical transformation that took place last month in the auditorium. The bill announces a performance of Bach's Goldberg Variations, whichwere written for solo keyboard; sure enough, there is a piano centre-stage.

Arranged around it, however, is an ensemble which might have surprised Bach. There's a jazz quartet of clarinet, trumpet, double-bass and drums, with a violin thrown in for good measure. There are two vocalists, gospel singer Barbara Walker and vocal improviser David Moss. To one side, a viola da gamba quartet, which Bach would recognise; at the rear, a choir which the composer would certainly know what to do with. But what would he make of the twin-turntable console of DJ Olive, whose scratch'n'mix improvisations punctuate the performance?

There is a trade-mark here. For the past few years the jazzman Uri Caine has been having his wicked way with classical composers, Mahler first, then Wagner, Schumann, now Bach. A brilliant, classically trained, pianist, Caine is stretching his imagination by reconfiguring the European classics: Wagner as performed by a Venetian café band, Mahler as a klezmer musician, Bach as a black gospel composer, and much else besides. Where Bach's Goldberg Variations consist of an aria and 30 variations, spanning 75 minutes, Caine's Goldberg opens with a more-or-less straight statement of Bach's aria, then spins through some 70 variations lasting, in its complete form 150 minutes.

In Turin, Caine's opening statement of Bach's theme is deliberate, even fumbling, and it quickly segues into a piano trio, throughout which David Moss' impromptu gibber intrudes like radio interference. DJ Olive's vinyl abuse thickens the mix, while the gamba quartet sometimes plays straight, sometimes funks it up like refugees from Manhattan's downtown scene. There's klezmer, tango, drunken a capella choir, roaring gospel, wildly free jazz; there's even some straight-ahead Bach. Every variation retains an audible if sometimes fragile link with Bach's original aria; and while many provoke outright laughter, breathtaking virtuosity underpins the humour. These musicians are serious even when they're being funny.

When I interview Caine at his hotel, his conversation has the elliptical cool of the jazzman, yet there is always a sense of the probing, practical musician. "Like a lot of piano students I started with Bach," he says. "I wanted to be a jazz musician, but my teacher said, 'You have to do classical piano because you have to develop as a musician.' When we came to Bach, he said, 'Make the lines separate: they have to work against each other', which was hard to do. Then I heard Glenn Gould's recording of the Goldberg Variations, and he was doing it in such a swinging and exultant manner. I was about 13 or 14, and it was a formative experience.What I enjoyed was his attack, his rhythmic feel, the way he moves these voices so that you're really hearing the counterpoint. Some people might find it affected, but me, I go in that direction."

In the late-1980s Caine moved to New York, where the interdisciplinary fusions of Manhattan music no doubt led him towards working with, and sometimes working over, dead composers. Certainly the Bach project grew naturally out of traditional jazz practice: "I always wanted to take a jazz standard and play a whole CD of different versions. I realised that I was thinking in terms of theme and variations, so I thought, "Why not take Bach's Goldberg theme?" It's like the jazz idea of using something by Irving Berlin or George Gershwin, and getting really intense on it. So I decided to make a piece where you play the Bach in more or less the order of the original, but sandwiching other pieces between his variations."

The success of a project like this depends on Caine demonstrating to the classical players that improvisation is not desecration; and convincing the jazz players that Bach's discipline still allows them room to manoeuvre. "If the musicians are open to it, it works," Caine admits. "If they're not, it's harder. Jazz musicians have their own feeling, and you have to have players who are sensitive to the structure, and to what their role in it is, while also bringing their own thing to it. DJ Olive, for example, probably only knows Bach from records, but he knows records very well, and he certainly knows the Glenn Gould recording. That's a different way of looking at it. It's a question of sympathy, of people wanting to do it."

Caine brings a chamber version of Goldberg to Britain later this month. Where many of the festivities marking the 250th anniversary of Bach's death have threatened to suffocate the composer, Caine brings fresh air. Bach himself might have smiled.

Uri Caine's Goldberg tour: Norwich Playhouse (01603 766 400), 15 October, then touring. The two-CD recording is released by Winter & Winter

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