Neal Caine

Backstabber's Ball

by Robert R. Calder

20 February 2006


Before the Northeast, where he still lives and works, Neal Caine developed an early reputation in New Orleans, gigging on bass there while studying something other than music at Tulane University. He seems to alternate between the healthy New York biosphere in which the values of Smalls Records apply, and the home town of his duly celebrated drummer, Jason Marsalis.
Anybody who thinks there’s a line between Marsalises and the rest might ask where the brilliant young guys come from who play in the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra. Maybe mass media dupes suppose Wynton sends round to the employment office for the standard big band selection of musicians.

Of the two hornmen in this pianoless quartet, Stephen Riley, who plays the unusual alto clarinet as well as tenor saxophone, waters at the musical oasis where Smalls is growing. The guy who here sticks to tenor can be checked out on and the Smalls label website.

Caine’s notable quartet doesn’t here follow the fashion for playing too many new/ specially composed numbers. Although all the tunes are indeed Caine’s, he’s been saving them a long time. So say the notes, and the variety as well as quality of the music bears that out.

Reading about a mostly unknown composer-leader with two far from famous hornmen certainly inspires the question of what their music sounds like. The following references aren’t intended to indicate any excessive dependence on older models. There are respects in which this music differs from as well as resembles that of, for instance, the group brought to my mind by reading a reviewer’s reference to Cool Jazz, which, with the two words spelled in capital letters, is a conventional name for a certain range of music, rather than a comprehensively descriptive term. That earlier group was one featuring the English bassist Peter Ind and two fellow pupils of the composer-pianist-guru Lennie Tristano: the great altoist Lee Konitz and the late Warne Marsh on tenor. When both these men played tenor they sounded very alike, with the quiet feathery or slightly husky sound which differentiates ‘the Cool’ from brassy or full-bodied.

Soft or soft focus is another indicator, as is the hazy difference between this light sort of tenor at the top of its range and alto down below. It would be hard to say whether two tenors or an alto and a tenor are being played on “Conversation for Two”. There’s a hint of Stan Getz, though not his more impassioned sound. Jimmy Giuffre is worth mention as another predecessor.

Other than on one of the three short pieces called “WMD Interlude”, based on Caine’s composition “WMD”, there is no frenzy. “WMD” itself has a fair bit of conflict in it, but elsewhere the playing is restrained. Cool as a descriptive term refers really to the temper of playing, not necessarily to what is actually being expressed in a language of restraint.

The two horns can make a beautiful sound played together in unison, or where each has a separate part. One function of the restraint is to admit the bassist as a full front-line performer, where the softness of the saxophones can offset Caine’s solo line and let him ring out in impassioned expression without lifting the noise level,

It’s not just the full-toned, springy and momentum-maintaining bass which beside the Cool saxophonists brings to mind Charles Mingus. The side of his music liable to be sustained by the current wonderful Mingus Big Band is different from what there is here, but not from his earlier work such as “A Foggy Day” on the Debut label. East Coasting. while not one of his pianoless and two-saxophone exercises is in large part of a kind with what these men do. Caine’s very forthright deep-toned bass lines distinguish the seven and a half minutes of “Crescent City Reflections”, which do have some echoes of southern stuff.

“Clare Evermore” follows, with real tenderness in the combination of voices, the tenors at the top of their range and lyrical. The same thing can be done louder, except for the beautiful altoish bits, This is not restricted playing; the quiet level opens up a remarkable range of possibilities.

Caine even when playing up front maintains a forward swing, with Marsalis always there and always immensely creative. He builds up a lot of emotional power on the last of the three interludes, which is almost free jazz, for almost exactly one minute, before the habanera of “The Hemphire Strikes Back”.  Here he does a lot too, none of it noisy. The colour of the bass-playing can really be heard.

Riley’s forays on the unusual alto clarinet add a little variety, but there’s no clear distinction between its sound and that of his or Goold’s tenor. It becomes clear when the clarinet is involved, but not dramatically so, Drama is by no means absent, however, in these performances with their remarkable variations in mood and rhythm.

I don’t know what the title track refers to, with its gentle opening, bowed bass, and the transition by way of vivid drum-work to a fast-medium ensemble then a tenor solo with charging bass behind whoever is emulating Sonny Rollins. The other tenor’s entry is yet softer, plaintive, Caine getting around the bass until with another distant thundercrack from Marsalis first the lighter tenor takes up the pace again and then Caine has another energetic solo. Another flourish from Marsalis and the two tenors are pressing on and Caine swinging like the clappers. Marsalis seems to be far away driving a New Orleans marching band, as the tenors resume for a few bars of theme on another shortie echoing the opening “Intro” with—what else to call it?—“Outro”.  This set is really recommended.


We all know how critical it is to keep independent voices alive and strong on the Internet. Please consider a donation to support our work. We are a wholly independent, women-owned, small company. Your donation will help PopMatters stay viable through these changing, challenging times where costs have risen and advertising has dropped precipitously. PopMatters needs your help to keep publishing. Thank you.

//Mixed media


Treasuring Memories of Paul McCartney on 'One on One' Tour

// Notes from the Road

"McCartney welcomed Bruce Springsteen and Steven Van Zandt out for a song at Madison Square Garden.

READ the article