Uri Caine/John Surman, Queen Elizabeth Hall, London

The gathering clouds
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The Independent Culture

Pairing Uri Caine, the precocious fatboy of US jazz pianists, with the BBC Concert Orchestra must have seemed like a very good idea. Caine is, after all, known for his daring interpretations of Mahler and (less daringly) Bach in the jazz idiom. Likewise, Britain's John Surman is as thoughtful and original a reedsman as his West Country accent is rich and slow. His beautiful, contemplative The Road to St Ives would appear to be a prime candidate to benefit from an orchestral arrangement. Alas, both halves of this concert, on the closing night of the London Jazz Festival, were to different degrees object lessons in the perils of mixing jazz and classical formats.

Past experience of Caine's playing, and the similarity of his surname to that of the poet Craig Raine, always bring some lines to my mind before a Caine concert. They were written by Bernard Crick: "Whenever I hear Craig Raine/ declaim/ I feel a pain/ in my posterior".

Substitute Caine for Raine, and you get the idea. I still hope to be pleasantly surprised; it hasn't happened yet.

Caine is undoubtedly ferociously intelligent and technically proficient. Yet so often his playing is totally undisciplined, and the same went for these new orchestrations, in which meaningless waves of sound jostled for space with overblown brassy nonsense. Doubtless the intention of "Dubya at War" was an ironic subversion of martial themes, but the irony seemed so jejeune that the only way this music could be taken at face value was as the soundtrack to an apocalyptic Seventies B-movie.

Caine provided a luscious beginning to his last number, which promised something better. But then he ruined it by moving into a bossa feel which, combined with strings, reminded one of nothing more than an elevator journey in a five-star hotel.

As was to be expected, Surman's half was a much more serious attempt to add something to his suite by its re-arrangement. The undulating parts of the original, on which Surman played bass clarinet, baritone and soprano saxophones, were transferred to the orchestra, while Surman improvised on top.

It was a brave attempt, but it didn't really work. When the strings began the slow descending chords of "Tintagel", for instance, one couldn't help but think of the eerie cathedral organ sound that Surman employed on the 1990 recording, and realise that the original was preferable.

The fluid, ostinato keyboard accompaniment on "Piperspool" transferred rather more successfully to an orchestral setting - on woodwind and French horns - but still lacked the cavernous purity that listeners familiar with the album might expect.

The Road to St Ives demands such purity. One could only hope that this new, cloudier, version of the suite would encourage some of the audience to search out the original recording on the ECM label.

As a player, Surman was on mixed form - fluent and with a wonderfully rich tone on soprano saxophone, but often tentative on bass clarinet and baritone saxophone. These last two are instruments that need grabbing by the scruff of the neck if they are not to sound like lanky adolescents ill-at-ease with their tremendous height. When Surman let rip on the baritone and brought forth some throaty roars he was as magnificent as we all know he can be. On the whole, sadly, his rather noodlesome approach and the suite's rearrangement served to diminish rather than expand on this remarkable music.

At least he tried. Caine still resembles the spoilt child who shows the odd flash of brilliance but spends most of the time hurling his toys round the room. Such behaviour should be checked, if need be with a sharp tap on the backside.

It will hurt us more than it will hurt him; and one day he may be grateful for it.

s.byrnes@independent.co.uk

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