Live at the Village Vanguard
Winter & Winter 910 102-2

Finally the CD for which long-time fans of pianist Uri Caine have been waiting.

Not that his improvisational orchestral reworking of so-called classical music by Richard Wagner, J. S. Bach and Gustav Mahler isn’t impressive — as a matter of fact it offers a whole new perspective on that music. It’s just that those who recall Caine’s playing as far back as the mid-1990s realize that he’s a dynamic jazz pianist. Now in a trio, rounded out by bassist Drew Gress and drummer Ben Perowsky, LIVE AT THE VILLAGE VANGUARD lets him expand that part of his identity.

Cerebral and swinging at the same time, Caine’s improvising is reminiscent of what Bill Evans would have sounded like if his harmonic smarts had been mixed with a hang loose ethos, or how Wynton Kelley could have played if he mixed polyphonic explorations with basic swing.

Thus it’s somewhat symbolic that the pianist begins this almost 77-minute recital with a herky-jerky recasting of Wayne Shorter’s “Nefertiti”, best-known in a version by Shorter, Kelly and Evans’ old employer Miles Davis. Playing it straightforwardly modal,

Caine elaborates the melody then introduces key clipping and portamento slides. He’s trading fours with the drummer in the penultimate minutes, but Perowsky’s rumbling paradiddles and cymbal smack never disrupt the pulse.

Reminiscent of two other musicians who played with Miles, and seemingly on every second New York session in the 1960s — bassist Paul Chambers and drummer Art Taylor — Gress and Perowsky know when to lay back and stay out of the pianist’s way. Certified post-modernists — the drummer plays with everyone from funky trumpeter Steven Bernstein to POMO flautist Robert Dick, and the bassist’s associates range from romantic pianist Fred Hersch to downtown altoist Tim Berne — the two don’t show off or indulge in any tricky extended techniques. They just help Caine tell his stories. And his stories they are, since six of the pieces here were written by the pianist.

Unique and original, they include sardonic lines like “Snaggletooth” and the even more satiric “BushWack”, named for the present American president. The former is a rubato swinger, which despite broken time and tremolo accents still flows smoothly. Using ringing semitones, straight glissandi and dynamic double arpeggios, Caine shows what happens when extra emphasis is unexpectedly placed on repetition as he reaches just a touch beyond the so-called correct note.

The later, which includes a sly pumping piano snatch of “Hail to the Chief” is harshly syncopated and double time, enlivened by cross-handed slips across the keys. On it, some Cecil Taylor-like contrasting dynamics play off a Latinesque beat courtesy of the drummer. Bearing down on the sustain pedals, the barest hint of “Be Kind to Your Web Footed Friends” appears to mock the White House’s occupant. Following emphasis on some orphan note clusters, the piece ends with a flourish

Caine doesn’t run through standards by rote either. In fact he usually segues into a sprightly, post-bop version of them as he exits his own tunes. To get a real idea of what he can do, listen to his reconstitution of “I Thought About You”. The Jimmy Van Heusen ballad is given a semi-stride almost Monkish cast with a repetitive introduction and at an accelerated speed. With Gress and Perowsky pushing out more of a syncopated beat than Van Heusen could have imagined, Caine adds elbow thumps and sudden feints to his solo. Jolting, unusual key clusters meet the odd treble pop as he adjusts his voicing so that the tune picks up every overtone. Ending with a waterfall of descending notes, the most conventional spot is Gress’s low key, almost distant, foursquare bass solo.

Overall the only piece that drags a bit is the overlong — more than 9½-minute —“Go Deep”. But things pick up as the three segue into a highly rhythmic version of Irving Berlin’s “Cheek to Cheek”.

Despite this LIVE provides more than an hour of exceptional listening. Piano trio fans should be lining up to get it.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: 1. Nefertiti 2. All The Way 3. Stiletto 4. I Thought About You 5. Otello 6. Snaggletooth 7. Go Deep 8. Cheek To Cheek 9. Most Wanted 10. BushWack

Personnel: Uri Caine (piano); Drew Gress (bass); Ben Perowsky (drums)