Jazz pianist Uri Caine brings his considerable and eclectic talents as an arranger to a wide variety of classical pieces, guaranteed to drive purists away screaming, but with the potential to delight listeners attentive to beauty in juxtapositions that on their surface might seem ridiculous. While a few of the pieces come off relatively close in notes and spirit to the composers' original intentions, others are so radically skewed as to be nearly unrecognizable, but even in the most extreme cases, Caine's machinations can shed surprisingly insightful light on the pieces. Caine is an experienced hand at bringing a different perspective to the classical repertoire; he has devoted whole discs to J.S. Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, Schumann, Wagner, and two to Mahler. Most but not all the tracks on this album come from these earlier releases.
The reason so many of the tracks are successful is that Caine doesn't just jazz up the originals by throwing in some funky jazz-like harmonies and rhythms, but he applies the principle of improvisation in the broadest sense, letting us hear the older music in fresh ways. In several of the tracks, that means adding new layers of sounds; over a choral arrangement of a Mahler song, he floats a gospel soloist, improvising entirely new but complementary material using the English translation of the text. He arranges two of the variations from Bach's Goldberg Variations for fortepiano and viola de gamba quartet. The quartet plays the Bach more or less straightforwardly, while the fortepiano, which could easily pass for a player piano, encircles it with impossibly fast ornamentation that sounds for all the world like Nancarrow. Not all the tracks are equally persuasive, but the best open the music in unexpected and marvelous ways. The performances, by musicians like the orchestra Concerto Köln, violinist Mark Feldman, and turntablist DJ Logic, are above reproach. The engineering is exemplary; the sound is clean and spacious, but intimate enough that every crackle of the LPs he uses on some tracks is audible.