“We mostly communicate through a nod or a glance,” says Neal Caine of his special musical camaraderie with multi-hyphenate bandleader Harry Connick Jr. “Harry and I have been playing together so long that we are like an old married couple,” he jokes. These days that bond is on display daily on national television, as Caine grabs the low reins of the mighty band backing Connick’s new afternoon talk show, Harry. A deft doubler with a ridiculous resumé, the 44-year-old bassist has seriously raised the already high bar in the world of TV bass.
A St. Louis native, Neal bolted south to New Orleans right out of high school in 1991 and quickly established himself as a premier player on the NOLA circuit, landing gigs with Ellis Marsalis, Nicholas Peyton, and other jazz heavyweights. When legendary drummer Elvin Jones came calling in ’94, Neal’s journey headed north to New York City, where he proceeded to make his mark big time in the Big Apple. Tours with Diana Krall and Betty Carter came next, before Caine landed his spot with Harry’s big band in 2000—recommended by previous bassist Ben Wolfe. He’s been there ever since.
What drew you to the music of New Orleans?
The early ’90s in NOLA was a hip time for musicians. Nicholas Payton, Brian Blade, Peter Martin, Mark Turner, Chris Thomas, Jason Marsalis, among others, were all living there, learning how to play. I knew I wanted to be a part of that scene. So after high school in St. Louis, I headed to down to Tulane University to study political science and play bass on the side. I quickly fell into the New Orleans music scene and started playing with Ellis Marsalis. Freshman year I was offered the choice to tour Europe with Delfeayo Marsalis’ band or complete my finals. I promptly dropped out of Tulane and hit the road.
How did your three years in New Orleans shape you as a player?
Cats in New Orleans generally stress the blues and the groove more than in New York. Groove hard! Swing hard! It’s more about one’s feel than showing off technique. More specifically, I dug a lot of tuba players, which helped my bass playing, especially my two feel.
What was your biggest takeaway from working with Elvin Jones?
To be 21 years old and playing with arguably the greatest jazz drummer in history was equally magnificent and surreal. Elvin insisted I move to New York, and he and [his wife] Keiko kind of took me under their wing. I learned so much from him, both musically and otherwise, that it’s hard to single out just one thing. I would say that the seriousness with which he approached the music struck me. When it came to jazz music, it was life or death to him. I got the same feeling working with Betty Carter. The commitment that older generation has toward jazz music is on another level.
Your career path and Harry’s have a lot in common. Thoughts on your musical connection with him?
We do have a lot in common, except for our bank accounts! [Laughs.] Our connection is deep, and we know each other’s playing so well that very little needs to be said between us about music. If I mess up, he knows I know. And vice versa. I’ve learned a tremendous amount from Harry, both musically and otherwise—the way he runs his organization, his unrelenting work ethic, the way he develops relationships with musicians and the audience, too. Plus, he is a beast on the piano!
What’s your biggest challenge on the show?
Waking up at 6 AM to get there on time!
Why do you prefer to not use a pickup on the upright?
I have never owned a pickup. Pickups make the bass sound electric, whiny, and wimpy. I have no use for them. None of my favorite bassists used a pickup—Wilbur Ware, Jimmy Garrison, Israel Crosby, Paul Chambers—they all had fat, warm, woody sounds. That is the sound I dig. Plus, when a bass player is playing through an amp, the whole band tends to get louder, which can rob the music of its subtlety and nuance. The fact that the bass is a quiet instrument serves as a reminder for everyone—particularly drummers—to play with some taste and sensitivity. Jazz is a sophisticated music. It’s not supposed to be loud all the time.
Neal Caine, Backstabber’s Ball [2005, Smalls]; Harry Connick Jr., In Concert on Broadway [2011, Sony]
Basses Lakland Skyline Series; Juzek u upright with Pirastro Chorda gut strings (plain gut G and D, wound gut A and E)
Rig Epifani UL501 head with DIST-410 cabinet
Effects Tech 21 SansAmp, Electro-Harmonix Micro Synth Bass Pedal