Gustav Mahler - Dark Flame
Winter & Winter 910-095-2

Newest chapter in pianist Uri Caine’s POMO recasting of the works of the so-called Great Composers, DARK FLAME showcases an almost total vocal program.

Based on lieder composed by Austrian Gustav Mahler (1860-1911), the musicianship and inventiveness here are at the same high standard as Caine’s earlier meditations on the work of J. S. Bach, Richard Wagner and other Mahler projects. But with 14 selections rearranged over 77 minutes, there are times the variations move from novelty to gimmickry. Mahler’s oeuvre heard in gospel, Klezmer, rock or mainstream jazz variations is engaging; but linking it to turntable tricks, Oriental sounds, overwrought poetics or cocktail jazz works less well.

Caine, who still sometimes functions as a straight jazz pianist, shows that he’s lost none of his facility as a player or arranger on tracks like “When My Sweetheart”. In its middle section he and clarinetist Don Byron make like Tony Scott and pre-1973 Herbie Hancock, creating a brief, but potent, double-time bebop motif. This contrasts with whistling tremolos from violinist Mark Feldman and a vocal from cantor Aaron Bensoussan that is more freylach than Teutonic folk song. It’s also one of the times when the varied sounds from DJ Olive’s turntable provide a memorable fillip to the piece.

“Song Of The Prisoner In The Tower” showcases the same sort of antithetical coupling, except this time the clarinet and piano approximate 19th Century chamber music. In opposition to that, drummer Jim Black pounds out a hard rock rhythm that is amplified by distorted guitar reverb from David Gilmore. In conjunction with the rockers, actor Sepp Bierbichler spits out the harsh Germanic lyrics; backed by the chamber group, poet Julie Patton provides an English translation filled with homonyms, puns and onomatopoeia.

Then there’s “In Praise of Lofty Judgement”, where gospel singer Barbara Walker’s melisma and glossolalia turns a secular song of praise into a sacred one, despite — or perhaps because — of backing by the Kettwiger Bach Choir. Sounding as if she was feeling the spirit during the whole performance Walker suggests a match-up between gospel diva Shirley Caesar and any overwrought, classical vocal choir.

“St. Anthony of Padua Preaches To The Fishes”, which may have had more resonance for Mahler, who converted to Catholicism from Judaism than Caine, who hasn’t abandoned his ethnic identity, is treated as a full-on, light instrumental performance. Although it takes on a modern cast, from the allegro fantasia created by the pianist, some of the other tracks here are a little too precious, especially those which include Feldman’s caprices and sweeps and what sounds like Baroque trills from trumpeter Ralph Alessi.

Other recreation shortcomings include Sadiq Bey’s street poetry addendum to the lyrics of “Labor Lost”, which grates against the chamber recital accompaniment. Plus those times hen traditional Chinese instruments like the hammered dulcimer and end-blown flute and translating Mahler’s words into Mandarin, which happens a couple of times here, doesn’t successfully move his music from Bohemia to Beijing.

“Two Blue Eyes” and the title tune, two of the most ambitious and longest tracks also point out the pitfalls in this mix-and-match treatment. On the former, Bensoussan’s synagogue-trained voice initially meshes with Caine’s recomposition and arrangement of the composition. That is until a finger-snapping, swinging jazz variation has the trumpet, clarinet and violin voiced so that they sound like larger string and brass sections. This is then followed by Shulamith Wechter Caine reciting the words in hesitant Hebrew and dramatic English. Finally, Byron solos in what only could be described as a jazzbo MittleEuropean style, ending the piece with a sort of tango rhythm supplied by the acoustic instruments and turntables. Is mishmash a German or Hebrew word?

Additionally, Patton’s actorly mode almost betrays the intent of the words on the 11-minute “Dark Flame”. That’s because her recitation seems to flow in a tone usually reserved for children’s stories. As Ur-Romantic fiddle vibratos and legit clarinet tones meet a tinkling Ahmad Jamal overlay from Caine’s piano, you start to wonder how the band meandered into a cocktail lounge. From then on the piece scene shifts back and forth from Romantic chamber music-backed recitation to the jazz club, with Black’s drums provide hearty accents on one hand and Feldman lets loose with tremolo shuffling on the other.

A CD that will likely be welcomed by Caine’s fans eager to see what new classical mutations he has envisioned, DARK FLAME is an interesting session, but because of its overly-POMO stance, unfortunately weaker than earlier efforts in this genre.

Here’s an idea. Now that Caine has proven he can reinterpret composed material, maybe its time for him to put together a jazz combo and record an all -improvised jazz session. Some have been waiting for him to do so since 1995’s exceptional TOYS.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: 1. Dark Flame^& 2. Only Love Beauty& 3. In Praise of Lofty Judgement+ 4. Two Blue Eyes*~ 5. Shining Trumpets 6. The Lonely One In Autumn@% 7. Song Of The Prisoner In The Tower+^ 8. When My Sweetheart* 9. Labor Lost$ 10. On Youth%! 11. Rhinelegend+ 12. When Your Mother Comes In The Door+ 13. St. Anthony of Padua Preaches To The Fishes 14. Only Love Beauty

Personnel: Ralph Alessi (trumpet [except 2, 6, 10, 12]) Don Byron (clarinet [except 2, 6, 10, 12]) Uri Caine (piano [except 2, 6, 10]); Mark Feldman (violin[except 2, 6, 10, 12]); David Gilmore (guitar); Michael Formanek (bass [except 2, 6, 7, 10, 12]); Bao-Li Zhang! (erhu); Yi Zhou! (pipa); Sisi Chen (yanquin)%; Tao Chen (dizi)%; Jim Black (drums [except 2, 6, 10, 12, 14]); DJ Olive (turntables, electronics)#; Barbara Walker& or Sepp Bierbichler+ or Aaron Bensoussan* (vocals); Kettwiger Bach Choir with Wolfgang Klasener (conductor)&; Sadiq Bey$ or Julie Patton^ or Shulamith Wechter Caine~ or Tong Qiang Chen@ (voices)