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Bach sent spinning

November 14, 2005|Don Heckman | Special to The Times

Sometimes you just shouldn't push your luck too far. The recording of Uri Caine's jazz take on the J.S. Bach "Goldberg" Variations is an entertainingly virtuosic display of the pianist-composer's mastery of a kaleidoscopic array of classical and jazz styles. But, despite some fundamental structural connections, Caine's 70 variations are more impressive for their colorful musical variety than for any superficial association with Bach.

Saturday night's not-very-felicitous dual performance at the Jazz Bakery, in which Caine's version of his "Goldberg" (reduced to 30 variations) was preceded by pianist Jeffrey Kahane's performance of the original, further underscored the differences.

Kahane's luminous rendering created an open window into the music's inner majesty, illuminating the complexities of Bach's compositional thinking while cruising impressively across its often stormy technical demands.

With this Bach environment established in the program's opening half, Caine's very different perspective sounded skewed at best and at times utterly unfocused. To his credit, Caine followed essential methods employed by Bach: references to other composers, the use of dance forms, variations constructed over the single harmonic source of a ground bass, canonic segments.

There were variations inspired by composers Verdi and Rachmaninoff, by the dance rhythms of bossa nova and tango, with the additional fillip of jazz improvisations over the repeated harmonic skein.

Other elements ranged into different territories: Barbara Walker's impassioned gospel singing; an added segment (not on the album) titled "The Bushed Variation" in which Caine employed a dissonant melange of patriotic songs as a commentary upon the actions of the current Washington administration.

All of this was entertaining on its own terms, particularly enhanced by fine improvising from Caine, saxophonist Bob Sheppard and bassist Darek Oles. But, aside from the occasionally interspersed variation drawn directly from the composer, its creative connection with Bach was marginal, in its least appealing moments ironically reminiscent of the current fad for remixing classic jazz recordings.

Granted the marketing topspin of an association with Bach, Caine (who has recorded similar takes on Mahler and Wagner) is a talented enough composer to spend more time building from his own creative foundations.

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