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Composer and Jazz Pianist Uri Caine.

Composer and jazz pianist Uri Caine (ER-ee CANE). He's fronted and/or played with a number of groups. On his first two CDS as he a leader, "Sphere Music" and "Toys" he played homage to jazz pianists Thelonious Monk and Herbie Hancock. He's worked in groups led by Don Byron, Dave Douglas, Buddy DeFranco, Clark Terry and others. His latest release is "The Sidewalks of New York" which plays homage to turn of the century New York city and the songwriters of tin pan alley. (Winter & Winter label). (THIS INTERVIEW CONTINUES INTO THE SECOND HALF OF THE SHOW).




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Date: SEPTEMBER 13, 1999
Time: 12:00
Tran: 091301np.217
Head: Uri Caine, Composer and Jazz Pianist
Sect: Entertainment
Time: 12:06

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not
be in its final form and may be updated.

TERRY GROSS, HOST: From WHYY in Philadelphia, I'm Terry Gross with FRESH AIR.

On today's FRESH AIR, the birth of pop music. We talk with jazz composer and pianist Uri Caine about the music of turn-of-the-century New York City and the composers who worked in Tin Pan Alley. Caine's new CD, "The Sidewalks of New York," pays homage to the era when the piano and sheet music were the way new music was heard and distributed.

We'll also talk with Caine about his unusual adaptations of Mahler and Wagner.

That's all coming up on FRESH AIR.


GROSS: First, the news.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.


GROSS: The early days of Tin Pan Alley, before the days of radio or records, back when the success of a song was measured in sheet music sales, is the setting of the new CD "The Sidewalks of New York." It features old chestnuts like "By the Light of the Silvery Moon," "By the Beautiful Sea," and "My Wild Irish Rose," as well as songs by Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, Eubie Blake, and Bert (ph) Williams.

We're listening to "The Castle Walk," composed by James Reese Europe (ph) in 1914.

The songs are arranged by the adventurous pianist and composer Uri Caine, who leads the band on this new CD. Uri Caine's other recordings have featured his original jazz compositions, paid tribute to Thelonius Monk and Herbie Hancock, and featured his arrangements of the music of Wagner and Mahler. "The New Yorker" described his Mahler as "stunning." Jazz critic Bob Blumenthal described it as "a tour de force."

Caine has also worked in groups led by Don Byron (ph), Dave Douglas, Clark Terry (ph), and Rashid Ali (ph). The new CD, "The Sidewalks of New York," is on the label Winter and Winter (ph).


GROSS: Uri Caine, welcome to FRESH AIR.

URI CAINE, "SIDEWALKS OF NEW YORK": Thank you very much.

GROSS: How did you get interested in doing a CD of turn-of-the-century pop music?

CAINE: I've always really been interested in the history of New York City, and when I was reading a lot about the turn of the century, one thing that really struck me was how pop music was sort of born in the whole Tin Pan Alley era. I'm talking about starting, maybe, in the late 1880s, 1890s, it's definitely already beginning, where you have groups of musicians who are basically hiring themselves out as songwriters to write songs about anything.

And as a pianist, it was really impressive to me that when people were saying that in 1890, for instance, a song like "The Bowery" in 1892 becomes a million-dollar seller. We're talking about people actually buying sheet music so they could take it home and play it on their piano. There were no radios then, there was no phonographs.

So that whole idea of the piano as being the symbol and the way that the music sort of got out to the rest of the people really was attractive to me. And of course, that doesn't exist today at all. The way we hear music is much more through the radio. And it encourages more passivity, in a way.

But that was my way into it. Then I started reading about the history, and it was so colorful, and in a way, it's like a commentary on all the social things that were going on in the United States at that time, that I really decided to delve into it and make a CD.

GROSS: I think a good example of how exciting that period is, is the life of James Reese Europe. We just heard his "Castle Walk." Tell us a little bit about James Reese Europe and why you're so interested in him.

CAINE: James Reese Europe is sort of an obscure figure, and he really deserves to be recognized. He was born in Washington, and he grew up on the same street as a bandmaster that played with John Philip Sousa. And so he was introduced to this type of music, and he -- when he moved to New York from Washington, he joined the theatrical hub at the Marshall (ph) Hotel, which was on 54th Street in New York, where a lot of the African-American musicians, who were trying to get onto Broadway but couldn't.

Because of the segregation and prejudice, they had their own scene. And he founded a group called the Clef Club, which was basically a self-help organization for African-American musicians in New York. Then in 1911 or 1912, he hooked up with the Castles, who -- they're sort of a prototype for the Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers...

GROSS: They popularized the fox trot.

CAINE: Exactly, which was very important in New York's social history, because it was the first time that public dancing and touching was allowed among the 400, the great -- you know, they were the people that decided what was tasteful and what society could do. And all of a sudden you had this young couple, and their music, they insisted, was James Reese Europe's. So this caused a lot of problems, especially when they decided to take their show on the road...

GROSS: Because the dancers were white, and he was African-American.

CAINE: Exactly. And all the musicians were African-American, and so that there was this awkwardness, that he was the first, I think, musician that really, in a way, showed that he could participate in the greater white popular music of the time.

GROSS: Well, we could do a whole show on James Reese Europe...

CAINE: Definitely.

GROSS: ... and hopefully we will sometime soon. But let's move on.

Did you have any preconceptions of turn-of-the-century pop music when you were growing up? I mean, for example, like, you were saying this music was meant to be sold as sheet music, and amateurs would sit at home and play it and sing it. And because a lot of the copyrights are out of date, and because these are songs that are meant to be played by amateurs, these songs show up in a lot of the learn-how-to-play-piano-type song books.

And so many kids associate these songs with their early piano books, and grew up really not liking these songs, I think.

CAINE: That's right. I mean, there's an association even that you don't even think of these songs as being written by anybody. They're just songs that have always been out there as part of our culture. But in fact, they were written in a very competitive and very interesting type of environment, because I think this was -- a lot of things were changing in entertainment in the United States.

For instance, the way popular music was even disseminated was changing when burlesque became a more acceptable way for people to go as an entertainment. Before, it was a much more lower-class thing, people were ashamed to go.

But I think around this period, especially after Tony Pastor (ph) built this giant place in New York where it was acceptable for women and for children, for instance, to come and hear variety acts, and this really became a way that a lot of the entertainers and popular -- you know, entertainers of that time became known.

GROSS: Did you have preconceptions of turn-of-the-century pop music before you started investigating it and playing it yourself? Did you just, like, dismiss it, as so many people have done over the years?

CAINE: I tended to, but I -- you know, I've learned not to dismiss a lot of music as a musician, you know. I think my first view of it was probably like most people's view, as you're saying, that it was very simple music, and I was much more drawn to jazz and to thinks that were -- seemed to me to be much more exciting.

But I wouldn't say I dismissed it.

GROSS: Well, let's show off your piano playing a little bit. One of the things you do on the new CD is Eubie Blake's "Charleston Rag," which was written in 1899. I don't know if you've played a lot of ragtime before this project, but tell us a little bit about what you found interesting as a pianist to tackle this rag.

CAINE: This whole style, stride piano, is really also very symbolic of New York City, because New York City had Lucky Roberts and James P. Johnson. There's a whole history. Eubie Blake is actually much younger. But the -- first of all, it's technically very difficult music, because your left hand has to really be keeping this incredible time while your right hand is playing very complicated things, syncopations against it.

So as a pianist, I've been playing ragtime, actually, for a long time and trying and really learning a lot from it, because a more modern jazz piano style, you're not supposed to use your left hand as much. You leave more space, let's say, when you're playing a bee-bop song, for instance. It would be more customary to let the bass and the drums be sort of stating the time.

But in this style, the pianist has to play it very strong with his left hand. So I would just practice left hand alone for hours, just to get that feeling of confidence, so when my right hand is going all around, that it's much freer.

GROSS: Well, here's Uri Caine at the piano playing Eubie Blake's "Charleston Rag."




GROSS: That's Uri Caine at the piano from his new CD, "Sidewalks of New York: Tin Pan Alley." We heard him playing an excerpt of Eubie Blake's "Charleston Rag."

Well, we neglected to mention that there's a lot of street sounds throughout this CD. Why did you want to do that on the CD, to try to replicate the sounds of New York streets at the turn of the century?

CAINE: I think the whole idea of this record is sort of like a dreamscape of what it would have been like to be walking around in New York and hearing all these different types of music. And in order to get that feeling, I wanted to include a lot of the sounds of the street, because it's so important in New York, even today, that -- how the music of the streets is really something that -- it's a very powerful force for a musician, I think.

And also, there's a certain genre of records were you go to a city and sort of try to hear all the types of music that are going on in that city. So in a sense, this record is sort of a reflection of that.

GROSS: My guest is pianist and composer Uri Caine. His new CD is called "The Sidewalks of New York." We'll talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.



GROSS: My guest is pianist and composer Uri Caine.

I'm sure that your new CD, "Sidewalks of New York: The Tin Pan Alley Record," sent you in a lot of new directions, such as shopping for old sheet music. What are some of the new directions it sent you in?

CAINE: It did, it really sent me in a lot of different directions. First of all, just reading about this whole period, I really -- I went to the Museum of the City of New York, and I got a lot of information. I looked at a lot of photographs from there. That was really a great experience. I had to meet a lot of singers. Usually I don't work with that many singers, and that's a whole different story.

So that was another aspect of it. Looking for sheet music -- I mean, there were certain people that I knew that already had piles of sheet music. And it became apparent to me when I was working on this project, there was so much material that, in a way, once I sort of got into it, I would have to start making decisions on -- I want this to represent this type of song, and this song to represent this type of song. Because there's just so much material.

And in general, I would say a new way of making a record, because it wasn't so much a thing where I'm taking pieces and improvising on them. This was much more of a thing that's more like a collage. So for me, that was sort of a new experience too.

GROSS: I want to play something else from your "Sidewalks of New York" CD, and this is a Yiddish version of "Take Me Out to the Ball Game." Before we get to the Yiddish version, tell us what you learned about the original song, "Take Me Out to the Ball Game."

CAINE: "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" is one of those songs that, again, that you don't really think of somebody having written it. But it was written. It was written, like many of these songs were, for an occasion or for the national pastime, baseball. And it was just a -- one of those songs that is so obvious and so American that it had to be on the CD.

Then I started to think, Maybe I need to make a little bit of a change in it. And I really wanted to sort of deal with the whole aspect of the immigrants coming, because so much of this music was made by newly arrived immigrants who came to America and reinvented themselves here.

And so in a sense, this is a reflection of that feeling.

GROSS: Who's the singer on this?

CAINE: The singer is my father-in-law, and he's a very funny man. And he decided to write a version in Yiddish in which he's not extolling baseball but instead saying, "What's going on here? I don't understand anything in this game. I want to go home, I'm tired, what are the Dodgers?" It's sort of a funny -- poking fun at the -- you know, as if somebody who just came to this country and doesn't really understand what's going on but is trying to.

GROSS: So this is his original lyric?

CAINE: These are his original lyrics.

GROSS: OK. Well, let's hear the Yiddish parody version of "Take Me Out to the Ball Game." The original song was written by Albert von Tilser (ph) and Jack Northworth (ph) in 1908. The Yiddish parody lyric is by your father-in-law, Sol Galperin (ph), who also does the singing. This is from Uri Caine's new CD, "The Sidewalks of New York: Tin Pan Alley."


GROSS: Music from Uri Caine's new CD, "The Sidewalks of New York: Tin Pan Alley." Uri Caine was the pianist on that, and we heard his father-in-law singing.

We were talking a little bit about how you've had to rethink a lot of music, like turn-of-the-century music, for this CD. You also, I think, had to rethink klezmer music. For -- you've played with Don Byron, the clarinetist and composer for years, in different ensembles that he leads, including his Klezmer Ensemble, which specializes in the music of Mickey Katz (ph). And Mickey Katz used to be the music director for Spike Jones, and did very kind of funny klezmer music. A lot of his songs were parodies of pop songs of the '40s and '50s.

What were your original thoughts about klezmer music before Don Byron? And I ask this because I think a lot of -- for a lot of second-generation Jews in the United States, klezmer music was, like, the corny music played by bad bar mitzvah and wedding songs -- and wedding bands, something to be avoided at all costs.

CAINE: Basically, that's where I was coming from. I mean, when I was coming up, I was really a jazz snob. I was so obsessed with Miles Davis and John Coltrane that actually friends of mine in Philadelphia were telling me, "Check out klezmer music, it's really interesting." And I listened to it, but I didn't really -- it didn't turn me on, it wasn't something that was so interesting for me.

But I think I started playing with Don's klezmer group around 1990 or 1991, and it was really a great experience, first of all, because it was -- just playing with Don is really very mind-opening experience, and we've really gotten very close, and we play in a lot of different projects with each other.

So we have a really good chemistry between us.

GROSS: Let me point out an obvious irony here. You're Jewish...

CAINE: Right.

GROSS: ... Don Byron, who led that band, or still leads that band, is African-American. So what is it like for you to start playing klezmer music and realize how interesting it could be because, you know, your African-American colleague turns you on to it?

CAINE: Well, only in America. I mean, it's -- to me, that's fine. I -- you know, it -- the main thing is, though, once you get in a band like that, and the music is really tricky, you start thinking about music. It's not really so much, Oh, this represents this, or, This represents that. And it was just so thrilling to be in a really good band, which I think a lot of musicians can relate to that, that when you're in a tight band that's playing well, and things are happening every night that are slightly different that are actually taking it to another level, you feel great about that, and that's really the way I felt playing in that band.

It was only later, especially when we started to go to Europe, that I started to see the tremendous symbolism and the way people were relating to this and what they were reading into it, that I started to realize that there's something else going on.

But Don really needs to get a lot more credit than he does, because I think a lot of the radical Jewish culture scene, let's say, that's going on in New York City now, Don was doing that stuff before a lot of these guys really got into it.

GROSS: That's interesting, because what he heard was purely musical, it wasn't about ethnic heritage or ethnic pride or anything like that, because he's not a part of that group. He heard the music.

CAINE: Exactly. And, I mean, that's really -- it goes to a larger question that all of us come from the background that we come from or grew up the way we grew up, but the music, in a way, stands as its own thing. And there's really no reason why people can't play (21-second audio interrupt)

GROSS: ... a white person to play a music that's so rooted in the African-American experience, et cetera, et cetera.

CAINE: But again, it's -- I had the feeling, especially growing up in a city like Philadelphia, as long as I was sincere and I was practicing, and the musicians sort of embraced me and were very open to me, and said, Just keep on taking this seriously, that's really what's important. I think that it's -- I mean, of course there's all these other sociological aspects of everything. There's political aspects of everything. But for me, I was always using the music as the way to sort of weave my way through all these different groups of people.

And that's why it's so interesting.

GROSS: Pianist and composer Uri Caine. His new CD is called "The Sidewalks of New York." He'll be back in the second half of the show, and we'll hear more of his music.

Here he is at the piano with Don Byron's klezmer band playing music by Mickey Katz.

I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.




GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Back with pianist and composer Uri Caine. He leads jazz ensembles and plays in bands led by Don Byron and Dave Douglas. He has a new CD called "The Sidewalks of New York," featuring his interpretations of music from the early days of Tin Pan Alley.

He also has a new CD featuring his ensemble live in concert at a Gustav Mahler festival.

One of the things you've been doing recently, Uri, is reworking music by Mahler and Wagner. And this gets to another aspect of music that you're rethinking. You've had a lot of classical training and studied at the University of Pennsylvania with George Crumb (ph), who else?

CAINE: George Rothberg (ph) was really one of my main teachers. He's a great, great composer.

GROSS: Before we talk about why you're reworking classical music, why don't we listen to something that you've done? And I'm going to play the Mahler "Funeral March" from his Fifth Symphony. And by the way, Dave Douglas is the trumpeter on this.

Tell us a little bit about what you've done with this particular "Funeral March."

CAINE: This is a very famous piece by Mahler, and it really combines the melancholy type of feeling that is in a lot of his music with his obsession with military marches, because he grew up near a military barracks. And so that's -- in many of his symphonies, we hear that.

In a way, this is sort of a sardonic view of that, because you do hear the military cadence, but it's more as if it would be played by a cafe orchestra, and it sort of sounds like a broken-down cafe orchestra. And I wanted to suggest that feeling in his music.

GROSS: OK, so this is from Uri Caine's recording of the music of Mahler.


GROSS: That's Uri Caine's reinterpretation of Mahler's "Funeral March" from his Fifth Symphony. It's from Uri Caine's album, "Gustav Mahler: Urlicht (ph) -- Primal Light."

So Uri, what sent you back to Mahler, to reconfigure it?

CAINE: Mahler's somebody that I've always been thinking about. I started to hear him, I guess, when I was about 15 or 16. And there were certain aspects of his music that really jumped out at me that I didn't hear when I would go to hear the symphony orchestra play it. For instance, one was his use of folk music and klezmer music.

Another was sort of the way that he would take and use musical memory. In other words, he would present something, then sort of corrupt it, then present it again, and take it another way, then present it yet a third time. Every time it comes back, it sort of means something different.

So in a way, I wanted to highlight that by letting the music suggest other types of music that I was playing with people that I was playing with. So for instance, I always heard the "Kindertotenlieder," they're really these heartbreaking songs about children dying, and I was playing a lot with Arto Lindsey (ph), who, you know, was coming from Brazilian music and that bittersweet quality of Brazilian music just seemed so apt, so I decided, let me do one of the songs as if a Brazilian (INAUDIBLE) -- just to get this feeling of the bittersweet quality of the music.

I worked a lot with B.J. Auliffe (ph) on other projects, so I wanted to use this feeling of dislocation and also of bringing in stuff that had been done before. While we're playing Mahler, you get strands of other music coming in and going out, because in a way that's how music imagination works as well. I just wanted to sort of update it.

GROSS: Now, you've performed your interpretations of Mahler to jazz audiences and classical audiences. In fact, you've even performed this music at Mahler festivals.

CAINE: Right.

GROSS: What's the range of reactions you've gotten?

CAINE: Well, it's interesting. In -- I Washington expecting in the beginning that many of the people at the classical festivals would really not be into this at all. And in fact, in a lot of the festivals we play, people walk out, or they say, We can't accept this, which is fine with me. I understand why people couldn't accept it.

But by and large, people really are excited by it. And I think it's because they want to hear something new within this music, and yet have that music sort of be the central focus of it. So I think that there's a real hunger for it.

I would have to say that in a lot of cases, the jazz press or whatever seem a little bit less embracing of it, because somehow they might be turned off by the fact that the source of the music is not -- is unusual for them.

GROSS: I think one of the things that interests you about Mahler's own story is that he had to convert from Judaism to Catholicism before he was allowed to conduct the Vienna Philharmonic.

CAINE: Right.

GROSS: Now, you've also reconfigured the work of Wagner, who is, among other things, famous as an anti-Semite. What made you decide to tackle Wagner, and how did you feel about performing the work of somebody who was so anti-Semitic?

CAINE: Well, it definitely gave me a problem. I mean, I didn't know as much about Wagner, so when I started to do the research, that was the thing that jumped out, and it's very ugly, of course. But it sort of goes to the same question that what I said before, that it would be great if all the musical geniuses had beautiful personalities, and didn't have these things in their past. But the music still stands as being so brilliant.

And really, Wagner changed music history incredibly. I mean, he just expanded, especially harmonically and with his operas. I mean, whether or not you agree or disagree with whether or not somebody's political stance or terrible views or whatever is important, I think the music, and as a musician, that in a way is what comes first.

GROSS: Well, I thought we'd play Wagner's greatest hit, which is "The Ride of the Valkyrie," which even Bugs Bunny has done in a great Loony Tunes cartoon. Tell us what you've done with "The Ride of the Valkyrie."

CAINE: The whole idea for this record came about when I was reading Wagner's diaries, and he talks about sitting in these cafes in St. Mark's Square in Venice and hearing how his music is being played by the cafe orchestras there. So I decided to do the same thing, to just arrange Wagner, play it out in the square, and in a way, sort of a fantasy of what it would have been like if Wagner was sitting and listening to his music in 1999.

GROSS: This is the Uri Caine Ensemble from the CD, "Wagner i Venezie (ph)."


GROSS: That's the Uri Caine Ensemble from his CD, "Wagner i Venezie." Uri Caine is a pianist and composer.

We'll be back after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: My guest is pianist and composer Uri Caine. His CDs feature his ensemble playing the music of Wagner and Mahler. He also has CDs of his own compositions, and he has a new CD featuring songs from early Tin Pan Alley called "The Sidewalks of New York."

Uri, you have a background in classical music and jazz, and you've studied with some well-known composers, including George Rothberg. In high school, you were -- and in college, you were playing with Philadelphia jazz musicians like Philly Joe (ph) Jones and Bootsie Barnes (ph). So it seems to me you were in two very different worlds. And did those worlds collide for you, or were you able to navigate them both without having to change your personality?

CAINE: I mean, I would say that at certain points, I realized that people in one world would not accept what I was doing in another world. But for me, there was never a collision, because I really enjoyed both.

But I also knew from the beginning that I would rather be a player. So, for instance, when I was sitting in a university setting and hearing the professors pontificate about this and that, I always took it with a grain of salt, because I thought, These guys don't even know what's going on 20 blocks from the classroom that they're sitting in, all this incredible music that's happening.

And they never will. And in a way, my life is different than their life.

GROSS: When you were playing with Philly Joe and Bootsie Barnes, did you ever feel like you were from a completely different world, as this more, like, intellectual college student?

CAINE: No, because in a way, I mean, I couldn't hide what I was. But I was -- it was mostly about music. And so it -- that world felt a lot freer to me. And I could develop without all these types of distinctions being made. It was just more of a thing of going for expression and going for the passion in music, whereas the other environment, to me, was a much more -- it was false, in a sense, because they were setting up types of intellectual and academic parameters about music that are valid to a certain extent but don't really get to the heart of what music is about for me.

GROSS: Are there things you learned in your classical training and classical composition training that were very useful for you harmonically or structurally in your approach to jazz?

CAINE: Definitely, definitely, because I think that the more you learn about how to put music together and what possibilities exist, and especially dealing with different forms in music and how music has very interesting architecture that has to take place in this sort of abstract world, so there's a lot that you can learn from classical music about that.

GROSS: My guest is pianist and composer Uri Caine.

Let's listen to a track from his 1993 CD, "Sphere Music." This is Thelonius Monk's composition, "We See."


GROSS: Now, you grew up in Philadelphia, and your father is very well known in Philadelphia as the former head of the ACLU.

CAINE: Right. (laughs)

GROSS: Yes. (laughs) What was it like to grow up the son of a civil liberties lawyer? Were there -- was there free speech for the kids? (laughs)

CAINE: Yes. No. My father is great. No, I think my father was actually very brave, because a lot of the stuff that was going on, I remember growing up, you know, our telephones were tapped, you could always hear these clicks at the end of the phone. And a lot of the people that my father was representing who were draft resisters, there was a whole other world that it seems now in 1999 has sort of evaporated.

But it was definitely part of my childhood, and that whole feeling that somehow political activism was valid, and it was right to question authority, and to really insist on freedom of speech, which today, even though a lot of people say they're for it, it seems we still in this country are trying to find ways to stop it.

GROSS: So could you say anything in the house without being punished for it?

CAINE: (laughs) Pretty much. I would say so. I think my parents -- I was lucky, and I realized this at a young age, my parents didn't force me to do something other than music, which I'm really grateful for. Because even a lot of my friends that I play with now have the typical horror stories when their parents found out, you know, This is really not a way to make a living, or, It's hard, it's going to be hard for you, you should do something else. But I was lucky in that way.

GROSS: You spoke Hebrew when you were growing up?


GROSS: How often was Hebrew spoken in the house?

CAINE: All the time. My parents are both Americans but decided, I think mostly because they thought that we would move to Israel at some point, only spoke Hebrew to all my brothers and sisters. And actually when we first went to Israel, I remember my sister and I, we just cracked the whole family up, because we were talking in such biblical, Shakespearean Hebrew that we had learned in our house.

GROSS: (laughs)

CAINE: And even when we said -- instead of We have to go to the bathroom, we said, We have to render our waters. And the whole family in Israel just said, What are these kids talking about ? What have you taught these kids? But that was another one of my father's -- he insisted on that. He even had the kids in the neighborhood talking in Hebrew in the house.

And now it's great. I just came back from Israel, and it's really great to be able to hang out in a different culture and just speak.

GROSS: Are you still speaking biblical Hebrew?

CAINE: Well, I mean, they can tell I'm an American from my accent. But no, I've toned it down.

GROSS: My guest is pianist and composer Uri Caine. We'll talk more after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.



GROSS: My guest is pianist and composer Uri Caine. His CDs feature his ensemble playing the music of Wagner and Mahler. He also has CDs of his own compositions, and he has a new CD featuring songs from early Tin Pan Alley called "The Sidewalks of New York."

Now, this is the part of the interview where I confess I knew you when.



GROSS: When I first moved to Philadelphia, you were well known as a local pianist. You hadn't yet established yourself nationally. And one of the places that you played was the local salad bar. You played a lot of the other bars, but I used to often run into you Monday nights at the local salad bar, where I'd meet a friend of mine for dinner.

And I admired your playing very much but had no idea how many interesting directions you'd end up heading in, and how incredibly your piano playing was going to develop and mature. And who knew?


GROSS: But I guess that's one of the reasons why it's good to sometimes move out of the city, so that people don't think of you as the guy who played at the salad bar.

CAINE: Yes, I mean, I was never looking at those gigs as somehow, you know, something that I shouldn't be doing, because I really needed to practice and I needed to play. And it was a -- I've looked at a lot of the types of things that I've gotten into as learning experiences like that, and...

GROSS: Right. That -- I always got the impression these things were just like rehearsals for you, just like practice with an audience.

CAINE: Totally.

GROSS: You'd always have a book with you that you'd be reading on breaks. (laughs) It's like...

CAINE: That's right, I mean...

GROSS: ... you're in your own world. (laughs)

CAINE: Right. No, but I think a lot of musicians have to deal with that aspect, that as they're getting themselves together, and they're thinking, What should I do next? What do I have to do next? I guess for me, because I was living in Philadelphia, everybody said, Go to New York, that's what you have to do. It's 90 miles away. You have to make it there.

And I didn't -- I wasn't one of those guys that went immediately to New York after I finished school. I sort of stayed in Philadelphia, I practiced, I thought a lot about different stuff. And in a lot of ways I was confused. I didn't really know what to do, because I saw that things are in these categories. You're a jazz musician, you're a classical musician. And there's this whole politics that goes along with how you do each of those things or as many things as you want to do.

I wasn't doing that. In a way, I was sort of drifting between all these different things, wondering, When is it going to come together for me? And when I first moved to New York, I had all the typical -- I mean, it went downhill, because talk about doing gigs that were hard! I mean, the first gig I did in New York, they called me up, I had to go and get dressed up almost like a clown and stand on top of a -- in a banquet. And all these musicians were sort of sitting on top of this huge food bank playing.

And I just look around and I said, Man, did I move to New York to do this stuff? This is really horrible.

But that's the way you have to start sometimes. And the thing I really liked about New York, people think there's all this opportunity. For me it was really the opposite, it was because there seemed to be so little opportunity that people just start getting together on their own to play. I've written this music, let's go, let's practice, let's do this, let's play at the Knitting Factory for $20, whatever.

Because that's the way things start to happen. Once you start to get in that mix, then other things start to happen. And then pretty soon people are saying, Those guys over there, that's -- something is happening over there, we should check this out.

And then it goes to the next level. And so the main thing is not to give up, just to keep on going for that thing, because you really never know where it's going to go, first of all. But even beyond that, stuff that happens to you that you don't think is that important, or an experience that you have in music that doesn't seem that important, maybe 10 years later, something is illuminated, and you realize, Wow.

And I'm finding that with me a lot. A lot of the classical music that I never thought of myself as a classical musician that I would have a chance to do these things. It's at my fingertips now, so it's something that I try to stay open, to keep all these influences. And it's also just because if you really love music, it's a never-ending obsession. I mean, you can go crazy. And I didn't really change that much from when I was 14 years old going down to Third Street.

GROSS: The record store in Philadelphia.

CAINE: The famous record store in Philadelphia, and just stocking up on all this stuff, and then, you know, people sort of know who you are and they say, We saved this record for you. Check this piano player out. You need to listen to this stuff. You need to listen to Duke Ellington. You don't know Louis Armstrong? Come on.

So this is the type of thing that you -- once you're in it, it gets deeper and deeper and never stops.

GROSS: So what's your current obsession, musically, Uri?

CAINE: I'm working on a version of the "Goldberg Variations," and I'm going to integrate Bach's music and also, because Bach, in these variations, used so many techniques, try to reflect the same thing, of using a lot of different types of performers, jazz musicians, some drum and bass, different stuff.

GROSS: Have you come to think of yourself as a composer and recomposer?

CAINE: I definitely see that I'm working in this area, and it's sort of an accidental thing that I've gotten myself into. But I'm also writing a lot of music coming up. I'm supposed to be writing this ballet based on a story of Noah for a ballet company in Vienna, and also a chamber piece I'm writing for a really great group in Germany. So I have my own stuff that I'm writing and working on as well as the jazz stuff that I'm doing.

I'm just trying to do a lot of different things.

GROSS: Well, Uri Caine, a pleasure to talk with you. Thank you very much for being with us.

CAINE: Thanks for inviting me.

GROSS: Uri Caine's CD, "The Sidewalks of New York," as well as his CDs of music by Mahler and Wagner, and CDs featuring his own compositions, are on the label Winter and Winter.

FRESH AIR's interviews and reviews are produced by Naomi Person, Phyllis Meyers (ph), and Amy Sallett (ph), with Monique Nazareth and Anne-Marie Boldonado. Our engineer today was Audrey Bentham. Roberta Shorrock directs the show.

I'm Terry Gross.

Let's close with music from Uri Caine's CD, "The Sidewalks of New York." This is "Some of These Days," featuring singer Barbara Walker.


Dateline: Terry Gross, Philadelphia, PA
Guest: Uri Caine
High: Composer and jazz pianist Uri Caine discusses his latest release, "The Sidewalks of New York," which plays homage to turn-of-the-century New York City and the songwriters of Tin Pan Alley.
Spec: Music Industry; Entertainment; Uri Caine; "The Sidewalks Of New York"

Please note, this is not the final feed of record

Copy: Content and programming copyright 1999 WHYY, Inc. All rights reserved. Transcribed by FDCH, Inc. under license from WHYY, Inc. Formatting copyright 1999 FDCH, Inc. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to WHYY, Inc. This transcript may not be reproduced in whole or in part without prior written permission.
End-Story: Uri Caine, Composer and Jazz Pianist
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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