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Avant-garde pianist takes jazzy risks with Mahler

People were crying during our performance of the Adagietto movement from [Gustav] Mahler's Fifth Symphony," says Uri Caine in a telephone conversation about his performance at a recent Mahler Festival in Germany.

This might not sound so newsworthy - this music by the great Bohemian composer who worked between the 1880s and this century's first decade has touched millions, particularly since the Allegretto was used in the popular film soundtrack of "Death in Venice."

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But it is news, and controversial news at that, when an avant-garde jazz pianist such as Mr. Caine decides to completely reinterpret Mahler's legacy.

You can sense what moved European Mahler fans when you hear Caine's recent CD Urlicht/Primal Light (Winter & Winter), titled after a spiritually uplifting movement from Mahler's Second Symphony, subtitled "Resurrection."

Marshaling the resources of his 14-piece jazz band, Caine dramatically reinterprets 11 compositions drawn from Mahler's vast output.

"I was first exposed to Mahler when I was 15," says Caine, whose musical education in his native Philadelphia proceeded simultaneously in classical and jazz veins.

"I studied Mahler's scores, [and] watched how he developed his musical ideas."

Caine's college days at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia deepened his comprehension of classical form, but he decided on a jazz career. He has appeared increasingly on the albums of jazz innovators such as the clarinetist Don Byron.

The past year has witnessed three albums under his leadership. In addition to the Mahler project, he has released a jazz trio album, Blue Wail, and a live album of Wagner reinterpretations, Wagner e Venezia (both on Winter & Winter).

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The Mahler recording came about unexpectedly. The producers of a film for German television about Mahler's life were looking for a soundtrack composer back in 1995.

Fascinated, Caine gathered a band of jazz musicians and performed versions at New York's the Knitting Factory, a club famous for experimental jazz. The music spoke to jazz fans and classical music fans as well.

A quick listen to "Primal Light" reveals why. Caine chose to heavily illuminate through jazz two key facets of Mahler's music.

First, he underscores the theme of spiritual struggle and transcendence that is at the quick of Mahler's art.

The other element in Mahler that Caine and his band underscore is the shockingly common.

A story is told that Mahler and his wife once were enraptured by unexpectedly hearing the sound of an amateur fireman's band performing an off-key funeral march. There's plenty of that zesty and humorous sampling of accidental and spontaneous musicmaking here.

"It's liberating when you get inside Mahler's music," Caine says. "My band and I are getting increasingly comfortable going outside Mahler's music and then returning to it."

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