Uri Caine’s jazzy swansong

Times Staff Writer

The Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra’s jazz flirtation has gotten serious. On Saturday night, Uri Caine, the stylistically polyglot jazz pianist, ended his two-year stint as the ensemble’s composer-in-residence with a marvelous sort-of-third-stream piano-concerto, “Mosaics,” at the Culver City sort-of-concert-hall, the Jazz Bakery.

The program, or more accurately the first set, began with a jazzy duo for bassoon and cello by Gernot Wolfgang, an Austrian jazz guitarist who becomes LACO’s composer-in-residence next year. It also included a jazz-inspired piano quartet by Joel McNeely, a saxophonist, film composer and conductor.

Jazz for LACO, it might be noted, is family. McNeely is the husband of the orchestra’s concertmaster, Margaret Batjer. The son of music director Jeffrey Kahane, Gabriel Kahane is a talented jazz pianist. And many of the ensemble’s players are highly versatile studio musicians.


Still, Caine’s tenure was no sure thing. The rambling two-piano concerto he wrote for LACO last year was full of treats but uncertain of its hybrid pedigree. And the conclusion of the three-day Caine-curated “Musaic” at the Jazz Bakery found far more of an audience for tamer chamber-music jazz than it did for Rova, the tumultuous Bay Area sax quartet that took over for the second set. The evening’s title was “Made in California.”

“Mosaics” is important. When jazz and concert music mate, the question of who’s on top becomes more than musical prurience. Jazz, through its dynamics and rhythm, is the natural aggressor. But in “Mosaics,” for solo piano and 12 players, Caine does something interesting and, I think, new. He keeps altering positions. All three movements are made of short, ever-changing snippets in different styles.

That technique is hardly novel -- it’s been John Zorn’s jarring approach for years. But each of the three movements of Caine’s half-hour score, true to a mosaic, has a larger, over-arching form. Caine also incorporates curious stylistic bleeding.

“Mosaic 1,” for instance, sounds at first like a Schoenberg chamber symphony written by Stravinsky before it jumps the fence, with surprising grace, into something more Coltrane-like with Boulezian rhythms. And so on. Caine, the pianist, flows in and out of the textures. He is a magnificent player. And for someone so stylistically nervous, he has an amazing lyric side.

In last year’s two-piano concerto, his slow movement was melodically enchanting. Here, the less melody-driven but even more magical central “Mosaic 2” was all moonbeams striking a glittering sea, Satie and Bill Evans and maybe a hint of Stockhausen’s sonic mysteriousness co-mingling. “Mosaic 3” thrived on energy. McNeely conducted a fine, engaging performance.

McNeely’s own “Pacific Dances” and Wolfgang’s “Common Ground” were less ambitious. “Common Grounds” pits two instruments of similar range. The bassoon buzzes. The cello buzzes. I wish that they had been loudly amplified and that more had been made of hum and murmur. But Kenneth Munday, playing the bassoon standing, as if it were a saxophone, and Armen Ksajikian, the seated cellist, did a believable job of sounding spontaneous while remaining glued to the score.

Written for the Pacific Serenades chamber series last year, McNeely’s “Pacific Dances” was meant, the composer explained in an introduction, to inspire dance. Boogaloo, a slow nightclub dance and swing are the subjects of three short, pleasing movements. Ravel shakes it up with Leonard Bernstein.

Rova’s set lost the audience. LACO had no trouble filling the jazz venue for chamber music, but the sax quartet came close to emptying it. That was a pity but maybe not surprising. After 30 years of experimentation, Rova is not about to ease up now.

The saxophone quartet can be a dull ensemble, subsuming all it plays into a warm sax bath. Rova, though, looks for new possibilities. Harmonics and microtones are employed to create clouds of strange sonorities. The ensemble goes in for disjoined, pointillist parades of startling sound effects. And although players, breathtaking virtuosos, have reached and are passing middle age, they retain a wild streak.

None, however, are inspired composers, and others have written for them. In 1987, Terry Riley made an exceptional hour-long score, “Chanting the Light of Foresight -- Imbas Forasnai,” for the quartet. Recently, it has produced a startling new version of Coltrane’s “Ascension.”

On Saturday, Rova played seven of its own numbers and covered a good deal of the history of experimental jazz of the last few decades in the process. A little Riley might have freshened the set. But the playing was astonishing.