Jazz Improvisor Caine visits Swarthmore

10 mins read
Album cover of "Walk" by Tycho.

This past weekend, the college welcomed jazz improvisor Uri Caine to campus. The Philadelphia-native attended the University of Pennsylvania, where he studied music composition, and then moved to New York in 1985, after which he recorded over thirty projects. These projects include his characteristic jazz arrangements of Mozart, Bach, and Wagner. During his weekend at Swarthmore, Caine visited a few music theory classes, led a master class, and finally performed in Lang Concert Hall, sharing his distinct improvisational style with students, faculty, and community members alike.
Caine’s strong fundamental understanding of music theory proved helpful for the students in the music theory courses.
“In each of [the music theory] classes, they looked at an original Bach piece, played little parts of it, and then he talked about his process—what he was trying to do, looking at a chord, looking at the harmonies of a chord, and sort of disengaging it so that it could be played at a different rhythm … and then we would talk about it as a group. So it was really great!” said Professor of English Literature Nathalie Anderson.
The master class provided another opportunity for music students to receive instruction from Caine. Master classes generally follow the same structure; students of a specific instrument will perform and receive feedback from a professional musician of that same instrument. The instruction is also much more focalized in that it directs the student towards a specific way of performing the piece. Caine’s master class, however, was unique in that he did not instruct students towards a more accurate way of playing the piece, nor did he instruct students to mimic his distinct style. Instead, he pushed them to toy with specific parts of the piece.
“I’m not a musician, so I don’t have [this] training, but I have been to a couple of other master classes, that were just as wonderful, but really different. This was saying, ‘Here’s an interesting thing that you’ve done, here’s an interesting aspect of it, especially, and, if you wanted to play with it some more, here’s what you could do.’ So that pushing, taking you into an exercise that asks you to try to do something you’re not trained to do, maybe that was what jazz always was but this is the only time i’ve seen it [in a master class],” said Anderson.
The master class was also unique in the diversity of performances and instruments. Caine is a professional pianist, but students performed guitar, harp, and vocals in addition to piano.
“There was a real diversity, and all of them were great. For us in the audience, it was just super to hear that expertise and variety, and also interesting to see how enthusiastic he was, how much he enjoyed what everyone else was doing, and how much he enjoyed the diversity of it,” said Anderson.
Caine was able to respond to this diversity, across instruments and different styles, which music students like Moses Rubin ’19 appreciated from the class.
“I showed him an original song and his comments were tilted more towards the arrangement of it, partially because I wasn’t improvising,” said Rubin.
Amelia Erskine ’17, who plays the harp, also appreciated the opportunity to hear her classmates perform during the master class.
“This sort of felt a lot more informal, which was kind of cool because I got the opportunity to hear a lot of people I’d never heard before. It made me realize that we don’t really have a forum where people come and just perform for each other … I got the sense that it was a very positive and nurturing master class…I think people felt like it was a very warm and receptive environment,” said Erskine.
Again, in addition to visiting classes and leading the master class, Caine also performed to a nearly full house in Lang Concert Hall. The first half of his concert, which took place on Saturday evening, featured pieces by Gesualdo, Mozart, and Mahler. As he performed them, Caine’s unique artistic expression started out very subtly and became increasingly announced.
“He gets up and he plays the first piece, and it sounds basically by the book and pretty normal … I’m sort of waiting the whole time. Then he gets to the Mozart and busts it out and opens it up and it’s so cool! Like just the fact of how quickly he can go into improvisational flurry, and then come back into the style seamlessly—that was super impressive,” said Rubin.
Some individuals in the audience might have been more attuned to Caine’s decisions than others, but everyone seemed entranced and happily entertained, producing audible chuckles and gasps in unison at particular moments.
“There were several things that pleased the heck out of me. One is that a lot of people were clearly knowledgeable, they knew what to listen for. The second thing is that a lot of people were clearly not knowledgeable, but were open to what he might do and were won over by the very first piece. So, the third thing that just pleased me to no end was that people were really attentive…Sometimes you can sort of hear little whispers … but this seemed like a group that was really happy to be here and got happier and happier as they night went on. It was just thrilling,” said Anderson.
Rubin also noticed this attentiveness, and commended Caine’s ability to engage the audience to such an extent.
“I don’t know how much of that audience was formally trained, like I know that I only recognized one of the pieces, but there were jokes, like people would laugh. He’d play something and he meant it to be funny, and people laughed at it, and it was nonverbal!” explained Rubin.
Caine’s adaptation of Mozart’s Sonata in C major evoked the most laughter, perhaps because the audience could most easily recognize that piece.
“The originary music that I know the best is the Mozart, so I guess because I could follow more fully what he was doing with it and to it, that was probably my favorite part,” said Anderson.
In the second half of the concert, Caine was joined by Theo Bleckmann, GRAMMY® nominated jazz singer and new music composer, in a rendition of Robert Schumann’s (1810-1856) Dichterliebe. Bleckmann displayed his vocal skill by incorporating recordings of his breath and vocal percussions.
Anderson and Andrea Knox ’64, former managing director of the Chester Children’s Choir, were responsible for bringing Caine to campus, which was funded by the Cooper Foundation. The Cooper Foundation is essentially a committee within the college that reviews proposals for events from throughout the institution and provides funding to execute them.
“[The Cooper Foundation] tries to balance the accepted proposals among various competing interests so we don’t have, let’s say, a full year of theater and nothing from biology. We try to have a set of things that will be happening throughout the year and include  different sorts of interests,” explained Anderson.
This upcoming weekend, a number of other events funded by the Cooper Foundation will also take place. Gerard Edery, whose visit was also proposed by someone outside of the department of music and dance, Professor of Religion Steve Hopkins, will be visiting and performing.

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