When worlds collide the results can be cataclysmic, but Uri Caine makes the stars align in thrilling and harmonious fashion on his latest merger of jazz and classical music, Space Kiss. The album brings the eclectic, ever-(re)inventive pianist and composer together with Poland’s Lutosławski Quartet on a wide-ranging set that blurs the lines between jagged modernism and lyrical melodicism, formal composition and improvisational freedom.
The genre-warping Caine is, of course, no stranger to discovering radical new crossroads where jazz and classical can converge in often-unexpected ways. Among the most acclaimed titles in his always-surprising catalogue are his deconstructions of classical repertoire, projects where he turns the work of Wagner, Mahler, Verdi, Schumann and Bach inside out and reassembles it from a patchwork of stylistic and sonic inspirations. He’s also collaborated in the past with chamber ensembles like the Arditti, Alborada and New Zealand String Quartets, composing music that sets his own improvisations against through-composed music.
Space Kiss offers a new twist on those experiments, allowing the Lutosławski Quartet to function sometimes as a traditional classical string quartet, at others like free improvisers in dialogue with the composer’s piano. “I can imagine certain string quartets would not be into that,” Caine admits, “but the members of the Lutosławski Quartet are very open-minded musicians. They were open to a lot of things and they understand different styles. I like the energy that they play with, and we had a lot of fun.”
Named after the great 20th century Polish composer Witold Lutosławski, the Lutosławski Quartet is one of the leading young Polish quartets. Since its formation in 2007, the group has quickly established itself on the Polish and international classical music scnees, appearing at numerous prestigious festivals and in concert halls around the world. Performing mainly music of the 20th and 21st centuries, the quartet has collaborated with a diverse array of classical artists including Garrick Ohlsson, Kevin Kenner, Bruno Canino and Michel Lethiec as well as jazz musicians Kenny Wheeler, John Taylor and Benoît Delbecq.
Caine first crossed paths with the quartet in November 2011 when he was invited to perform at Jazztopad, the rapidly-growing jazz festival in the ensemble’s hometown of Wrocław, Poland. They’ve since reunited on stages in Europe and New York City, the daring and adventurous results of which can be heard in Caine’s compositions for the group on Space Kiss.
A series of keyboard flurries opens the album on “Knucklehead,” which draws on the angular influence of composers like Elliott Carter and György Ligeti in its rhythmic aggressiveness, while swapping the soloist role between Caine and the strings in a tense back and forth. A quote from Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde” adds another unforeseen element in the stark middle section. The elegantly irreverent title track follows, providing a more tonal contrast to the sharp-edged opener.
With a title taken from the Song of Songs, “Your Eyes Like Doves” is a slight abstraction of a traditional chamber piece, with straight-faced romanticism darkened by an austere introspection. Its seriousness stands in direct opposition to the comic call-and-response of “Burlesque,” in which Caine allows lines and themes to unravel and collapse, sometimes taking a musical pratfall himself, sometimes playing straight man to the Quartet’s four-man comedy team.
“Past is Present” recalls the folk music influences employed by Béla Bartók, at times evoking a Klezmer band or the kinds of traditional music ensembles that the Lutosławski Quartet might hear in their native Poland. Erupting in unnerving string glissandos, “Zephyr” hints at the lighter-than-air quality of its title with free-floating textures and extended techniques through which Caine wends his seeking piano lines. “Prayer” brings the album to a hushed, gentle conclusion, fading away with an ethereal repeated figure.
“I was able to write in different styles,” Caine says. “Some of comes out of a contemporary string quartet style, but some of the pieces are more lyric and tonal, not as rhythmic. I could also take different approaches to the improvisation, sometimes playing more densely, more actively, sometimes more laid back, while having the freedom to move back and forth between playing with the group and playing against the group, moving through different textures and dynamics. I love having all those possibilities.”
“Possibility” has always been at the core of Caine’s music, from his early days serving a hard bop apprenticeship on the Philadelphia jazz scene to his arrival in New York at the height of the Downtown scene in 1985, leading to collaborations with ground-breaking musicians like John Zorn, Dave Douglas, Don Byron and Arto Lindsay. In the decades since he’s veered along an unpredictable path between traditional and avant-garde jazz, free improvisation, classical composition and deconstruction, acoustic chamber music and electric grooves – usually crossing those genre boundaries with gleeful abandon.