When first listening to bassist Neal Caine’s new CD Backstabber’s Ball, the word that immediately came to mind was "hip", and the more I listen to this CD, the more appropriate that word seems. My handy online dictionary gives the meaning of ‘hip’ as "very fashionable and stylish", and Backstabber’s Ball is certainly that, with it’s pianoless bass/drum rhythm section and two horn front line. But it also has that same kind of elevated coolness that defined the beatnik movement of the 60s, in the sense that there is something unobtrusive and laidback about this music, but at the same time it somehow finds a way to get under your skin.
Case in point: the one minute "Intro" that opens the disc. It’s driven by a funky bass line under a repeated horn riff that would not at all sound out of place in the soundtrack of a Mission Impossible film, yet it’s still unmistakably jazzy. But if one forms any ideas about where this recording is going from that opening track, those ideas are quickly put to rest upon exposure to the second track, "D E A." With a relaxed groove that changes faces a few times through its relatively short five-plus minutes length, the band creates a mood that is very inviting. The lack of a chordal instrument (no piano or guitar), gives the band a great deal of harmonic freedom, and they make the most of it.
I can’t go further in this review without stopping to give some credit to Caine for putting together such an incredible band here. Joining Caine on bass are Ned Goold on tenor sax, Stephen Riley on tenor sax and alto clarinet and Jason Marsalis on drums. The first thing that I noticed about Caine’s playing, in particular, is that if I hadn’t read his name on the cover of the CD I would not have known that he was the leader of this group. His playing is powerful, and certainly drives the group, but you never get the impression that he has any desire to make his bass the focus of this recording. Nor does anyone else seem to have any security issues. They all seem dedicated to creating a true ensemble sound.
Goold and Riley are both exceptional horn players. Interestingly enough, they both remind me quite a bit of Joe Lovano, in their phrasing as well as their tone. If you’re familiar with Lovano’s work, then you know that to be quite a compliment, as he’s one of the preeminent saxophonists playing today. Jason Marsalis, son of Ellis and brother to the more well-known Branford and Wynton, shines brightly on drums. His playing is evocative - not only emotionally potent but technically precise.
All the tracks presented here were composed by Caine himself, and they are all interesting and different in their own way. There’s the lopping funkiness of "Corporate Jazz," almost relaxed enough to be called ‘smooth’, but not quite. There’s the beautifully forlorn "Conversation For Two," with its wonderful ‘call and response’ arrangement. There’s the Southern, almost gospel-like warmth of "Crescent City Reflections." Track after track, I was amazed by the variety and intricacy of the tunes presented. One particularly fine example of this is "W M D", a brilliantly conceived, fairly ‘free’ tune in 5/4 time. There are many moments in this tune when the bass is zigging while the drums are zagging, and yet they somehow manage to keep it all together. Even the tunes that seemed simple at first listen revealed upon closer examination an underlying complexity to their nature. Credit is also due Luke Kaven, who co-produced the date with Caine, for helping creating such a pristine recording - one that allows the listener to hear every nuance in glorious detail.
Backstabber’s Ball is a great example of how jazz is (and should be) growing and advancing at this time in its history. This is some of the best of the best.