Meta-Mahler 

At the turn of the last century, composer Gustav Mahler incorporated all sorts of elements from outside the orchestral tradition in his music. But would he have used turntables?

It’s not just any combo that utilizes the wheels of steel to help reinterpret the music of Mahler. Then again, Uri Caine hasn’t assembled just any combo to present his "Mahler Revisited" program, which rolls into Ann Arbor’s Kerrytown Concert House this weekend. His group is grounded in jazz, yet kaleidoscopic in its integration of many disparate genres. "All of the players have their feet in a lot of different music. In a way, that’s the main requirement, that they have an open mind, that they be able to improvise and read and be familiar with a lot of different styles," says the New York-based pianist Caine.

To bring his recontextualizations of the great Romantic composer to the stage, Caine has assembled an amazing group, including longtime Caine collaborator Don Byron, the category-defying clarinet king; Byron’s grounding in all sorts of music from classical to klezmer makes him the ideal foil for Caine’s musical demands. Jim Black, one of the young greats of drumming, will be on hand, jumping from the spontaneity of jazz to the rusticity of Bohemian folk melodies to classical marches as Caine’s charts require. Rounding out the lineup are Ralph Alessi on trumpet, Joy Hammann on violin, and hometown heroes Tim Flood on bass and DJ Recloose on the aforementioned turntables.

"Mahler’s always recalling things from other pieces and even quoting from earlier symphonies in his later symphonies. In a way, that’s the function that the DJ has, as well as doing all of the musical things he wants to do on his own," Caine explains.

"I like the feeling that you can play the adagietto and then all of a sudden you hear a recorded snippet of it clashing against what we’re playing."

Caine had adapted Mahler for jazz before, on 1995’s Toys. Coincidentally, around that time the producer of the record, Stefan Winter, had just made an impressionistic movie about Mahler’s life, and asked Caine to put together a group to perform a live sound track for the film. "The combination was really successful and they wanted to record it right away. But I wanted to make a deeper album," he tells.

Caine embarked on a yearlong study of Mahler’s music and life, and created the massive Urlicht/Primal Light disc in 1997 as a result. The Mahlerians of the classical world were quite impressed by Caine’s vision, and Urlicht received an international "Composer’s Hut" award for Best Mahler CD of 1997.

"Some of the pieces we play note for note," Caine says.

"I haven’t added much new stuff, except for in the manner in which we’re playing." It’s a manner that reflects methods of the maestro, juxtaposing genres and combining seemingly incongruous elements to powerful effect. Caine’s charts combine classical Romanticism and folk forms, virtuoso readings and the instantaneous expressions of improvisation. For instance, he’ll incorporate a Jewish cantor singing a melancholy dirge into one of Mahler’s "Boy’s Magic Horn" songs, yet soon enough it turns into an ecstatic percussion celebration. Elsewhere, a "Song of the Death of Children" becomes a bossa nova; the third movement of Symphony No. 1 moves from a funereal "Frère Jacques" into an ecstatic klezmer workout.

In all, it’s quite an accomplishment, an erudite experiment that works well as a result of Caine’s deep understanding of Mahler’s complexities, and his players’ skill, sensitivity and ability to combine genres in the po-mo downtown style. Caine grapples with Mahler’s heavy themes and heights of beauty in a manner that’s as simultaneously forward-looking and nostalgic as Mahler’s music itself. Greg Baise gets electric in the Metro Times. E-mail letters@metrotimes.com. Baise is a frequent contributor to the Metro

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