Neal Caine: Backstabber's Ball

Two tenors (one doubling alto clarinet) not outclassed by Jason Marsalis on drums, and a marvellous bassist. Many of the good things of jazz, only quiet, but amazing!

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.


In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Keep reading... Show less

Pauline Black may be called the Queen of Ska by some, but she insists she's not the only one, as Two-Tone legends the Selecter celebrate another stellar album in a career full of them.

Being commonly hailed as the "Queen" of a genre of music is no mean feat, but for Pauline Black, singer/songwriter of Two-Tone legends the Selecter and universally recognised "Queen of Ska", it is something she seems to take in her stride. "People can call you whatever they like," she tells PopMatters, "so I suppose it's better that they call you something really good!"

Keep reading... Show less

Morrison's prose is so engaging and welcoming that it's easy to miss the irreconcilable ambiguities that are set forth in her prose as ineluctable convictions.

It's a common enough gambit in science fiction. Humans come across a race of aliens that appear to be entirely alike and yet one group of said aliens subordinates the other, visiting violence upon their persons, denigrating them openly and without social or legal consequence, humiliating them at every turn. The humans inquire why certain of the aliens are subjected to such degradation when there are no discernible differences among the entire race of aliens, at least from the human point of view. The aliens then explain that the subordinated group all share some minor trait (say the left nostril is oh-so-slightly larger than the right while the "superior" group all have slightly enlarged right nostrils)—something thatm from the human vantage pointm is utterly ridiculous. This minor difference not only explains but, for the alien understanding, justifies the inequitable treatment, even the enslavement of the subordinate group. And there you have the quandary of Otherness in a nutshell.

Keep reading... Show less

A 1996 classic, Shawn Colvin's album of mature pop is also one of best break-up albums, comparable lyrically and musically to Joni Mitchell's Hejira and Bob Dylan's Blood on the Tracks.

When pop-folksinger Shawn Colvin released A Few Small Repairs in 1996, the music world was ripe for an album of sharp, catchy songs by a female singer-songwriter. Lilith Fair, the tour for women in the music, would gross $16 million in 1997. Colvin would be a main stage artist in all three years of the tour, playing alongside Liz Phair, Suzanne Vega, Sheryl Crow, Sarah McLachlan, Meshell Ndegeocello, Joan Osborne, Lisa Loeb, Erykah Badu, and many others. Strong female artists were not only making great music (when were they not?) but also having bold success. Alanis Morissette's Jagged Little Pill preceded Colvin's fourth recording by just 16 months.

Keep reading... Show less

Frank Miller locates our tragedy and warps it into his own brutal beauty.

In terms of continuity, the so-called promotion of this entry as Miller's “third" in the series is deceptively cryptic. Miller's mid-'80s limited series The Dark Knight Returns (or DKR) is a “Top 5 All-Time" graphic novel, if not easily “Top 3". His intertextual and metatextual themes resonated then as they do now, a reason this source material was “go to" for Christopher Nolan when he resurrected the franchise for Warner Bros. in the mid-00s. The sheer iconicity of DKR posits a seminal work in the artist's canon, which shares company with the likes of Sin City, 300, and an influential run on Daredevil, to name a few.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.