I know I can speak for a large number of jazz lovers of my generation — 20-somethings — when I say how hard it was to find my way to the music. Growing up in small-town New Jersey, I felt a long way from the the diverse music scenes of New York City and Philadelphia; jazz barely existed to me. Aside from the loping piano fills on Mister Rogers and Charlie Brown specials around the holidays, I don’t recall ever hearing jazz until well after my 10th birthday. My parents were dyed-in-the-wool rock and folk fans, so my childhood playlist largely shuffled between Neil Young, Springsteen, Tom Waits and Lucinda Williams, which isn’t bad, but definitely doesn’t prepare one for the melodic and rhythmic tumult of the Coltrane Quartet. In junior high, I developed a taste for retro television, and, consequently, the jazz-inspired soundtracks of shows like I Love Lucy, The Honeymooners and — shudder — CHIPS. Word got around, and before long, jazz albums started showing up under the tree at Christmas and among birthday presents.
Here’s the rub: I didn’t like them. There were exceptions, of course, but for the most part, the intricate melodies, unfamiliar harmonies and swing time left me disoriented and yearning for a steady rock beat. I knew there was something that I loved in the jazz sound, but sublime albums like Duke Ellington & John Coltrane and The Complete Savoy & Dial Recordings of Charlie Parker left me flummoxed. It felt like trying to navigate a foreign country without a grasp of the language.
Enter The Philadelphia Experiment.
Granted, I had come to appreciate jazz to a much deeper degree by the summer of 2002 when I bought the freshly-minted Ropadope recording, but the trio session, featuring Uri Caine on keys along with bassist Christian McBride and drummer Ahmir Thompson (aka ?uestlove), was a revelation. It, along with a number of other albums including saxophonist Joshua Redman’s Freedom In The Groove, Mingus’ Ah Um and a compilation of Djano Reinhardt classics, was my bridge to the jazz world. All the elements of jazz that I loved were there in a sufficient quantity to hook me, and from there it was just a matter of connecting the dots. Mingus’ Ellingtonian influence lead me to the Duke himself, which led me to Paul Gonsalves’ breathy tenor, and to his influences, like Coleman Hawkins, who is simply magnificent on the Django recordings that I wore out listening to. My interest in Joshua Redman opened the door to a host of contemporary jazz musicians, among them Kenny Garrett, Branford Marsalis, Jeff Ballard, Kenny Kirkland, Aaron Goldberg, Greg Osby and countless others, and led me up the family tree to Joshua’s father, the magnificent and still-underappreciated Dewey Redman.
The Philadelphia Experiment was unique in that it redirected my quest into Future Jazz territory (to lift a phrase from the great jazz chronicler Howard Mandel) as well as into the past in nearly equal measure. Billed as a summit meeting of sorts, bringing together artists of a classical (Caine), jazz (McBride) and hip hop (?uestlove) persuasion, The Philadelphia Experiment is a jazz album in the purest sense. A shared love of jazz is apparent from the first whispy notes of the title track that hang in the air like reefer smoke, before diving headlong into a sumptuous groove, and pervades the entire session. How else could three musicians playing together for the first time cohere so effortlessly over material ranging from free improvisation to Parliament grooves and Sun Ra to Elton John?
The pairing of Fender Rhodes and electric bass throughout the album lends a distinct retro vibe, but the shape-shifting, postmodern ethic shared by the musicians, especially Caine, blew the lid off of my expectations of what a jazz album should be. It had me hearing jazz in everything, from a police siren to a Nirvana track and, of course, the campy television themes that I still enjoyed. This of course had been going on in jazz since the late 1960’s – around the same time that historians of the Ken Burns’ school declared jazz dead – but it was all new to me. It was my entre into the gloriously fragmented modern jazz scene and gave me a taste of the startling diversity of styles and techniques that I would encounter when I first arrived in New York City in 2003.
It’s been nearly seven years now, but this all came rushing back to me late last month at The Stone. Uri Caine, bassist John Hebert and drummer Ben Perowsky sauntered in to the stuffy, packed room, and without a word, launched into a blistering improvisation. Caine’s classical technique and virtuosity was immediately striking, but he quickly subverted them by collapsing his hand in mid-phrase into a fist and pounding out thunderous bass clusters, then slamming his entire forearm across the keys. It’s a jarring technique, but is devilishly effective at deconstructing technique for the performer and breaking down expectations for the audience. This was lost on me when I saw Caine about four years ago with Perowsky and bassist James Genus at The Village Vanguard. I had come expecting the easy groove of The Philadelphia Experiment, and was confronted with a set of knotty, heavily improvised originals. I still enjoyed the show, but it was definitely over my head, like a lot of improvised music in those days.
I’m tempted to insert a clichéd moral here, but I won’t. I need to give my reader more credit then I would give myself. I’m embarrassed that it took me years to hear the humor and humanity that drew me to Uri Caine’s work on The Philadelphia Experiment in the more avant garde setting of his trio, but I’m relieved that it happened. Jazz appreciation – to my mind – has always been about making the connection betweens styles and players, and sometimes even the connections within the diverse work of one artist. This usually happens in fits and starts, but occasionally washes over you in a wave of insight. For me, these hallelujah moments almost always take place during a live performance, and from my perch behind Caine’s left shoulder at The Stone I felt it from the moment of the opening notes.
Caine has this uncanny ability to imbue the most fragmented line with a bluesy, swinging edge, as well as a technique of following up a dense, inscrutable phrase with a crystalline line – like something Chick Corea would play. I’m not sure that I have ever heard it honed to the level that Caine has achieved, and I’m sure I have never seen the technique used as effectively as the pianist did with Hebert and Perowsky at The Stone. The two improvisations that opened the set had an episodic quality and a sort of hurtling momentum – even during rubato passages – that had me — and others, I noticed — leaning forward in my chair. The second improvisation followed a spiraling trajectory for seven minutes, into a free-associative bass solo and brooding piano accompaniment – I actually scribbled “primordial” in my notebook for lack of a better word for the burbling, treble piano part – and just as I was beginning to wonder where we were headed, Caine launched into the intro to Irving Berlin’s “Cheek To Cheek.”
The theme underwent countless permutations over the course of seven minutes as the band bounced phrases off of one another, and set the tone for the rest of the set. The perfectly named “I’m Meshuggah For My Suggah And My Suggah’s Meshuggah For Me” followed “Cheek To Cheek,” and revolved around a repeated contemporary classical-sounding phrase and quickly built to a feeling of unrelenting momentum. Caine’s piano led the entire performance, employing tone rows, runs, clusters and carefully timed boogie-woogie snippets against the backdrop of pounded bass and drums. The blues-drenched melody of “Smelly” lent a brief emotional respite before the trio was once again in the thick of rousing, extemporaneous improvisation. All the Caineisms were on display throughout the twenty-minute performance – counterpoint, R&B phrases, quotes, and inexhaustible swing — and I’m happy to report that whole thing left me feeling, well, meshuggah, in the best sense of the word.