Its title sounds more likely to appear in the heavy metal section of the record store, but sonically Neal Caine's Backstabber's Ball has far more in common with the classic West Coast cool jazz releases of the early '60s than the identikit angst rock of today. As such, it isn't a departure for Smalls Records; rather, it's largely in keeping with the bulk of the label's output. The young New York-based label is fast becoming a favorite among the more traditional-leaning jazz audience by issuing one solid album after another.
Yet to slap Caine's debut as leader with the "traditional" tag would be unduly limiting. The disc is very much rooted in the here and now, with several short themed "WMD" musical commentaries, a tuneful teasing of big business and the "assembly line jazz" that producer Luke Kaven shuns in his liner notes, and a pervasive sense of ironic humor and attitude that would endear it even to the most jaded teenagers. Caine may also have gleaned the songwriting secrets of mainstream appeal during the time he spent as a sideman to superstars Harry Connick, Jr. and Diana Krall, but his stints alongside the late Frank Hewitt (another Smalls treasure) and Elvin Jones seem to have left him reluctant to forgo a touch of inventiveness. The unconventional makeup of his quartet on Backstabber's Ball suggests as much.
Caine is the record's dominant presence, offering a welcome relief from the infinite number of jazz albums that relegate the bassist to the studio closet, though that dominance should be considered in light of the group's unique dynamic. With the exception of the first "WMD interlude," a forty-second track that pits the sidemen against one another in a neurotic showdown while the leader steadily tiptoes along, Caine is consistently challenged by his two reedmen, Ned Goold (also a Connick, Jr. veteran) and Stephen Riley, and his drummer, Jason Marsalis, in what might be seen as a game of one-downmanshipthat is, who can appear the most unfazed, the most nonchalant, the most reserved.
Among so many cool, slinky tracks, "DEA" is one of the coolest, slinkiest tracks on the disc. Caine's bent notes and gentle strut contrast here with his percussive thump on the brief intro, and Goold and Riley work in unison to create a melodic theme every bit as satiny and memorable as "Delilah"it even borrows the final trill. "Good Goooold" is a bit more propulsive. Caine works up to a pace that borders on outright swing, Marsalis splashes the high hat at a good clip, and the sax players pursue a dialogue with the statements and sighs and second thoughts of human conversation. Throughout the album Goold and Riley do more than complement one another. They are, in fact, so much of a piece in terms of control and style that the resulting sound seems to come from a single full-bodied instrument.
Backstabber's Ball is yet another feather in Smalls' cap and, I suspect, the first of many for Caine.
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