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Music Preview: Playing jazz for the love of music

Kirk Silsbee

The Elliott Caine Quintet is one of the more ubiquitous local jazz bands. It plays the hard-driving bop that was emblematic of the Blue Note and Prestige labels of the 1950s and '60s. The Caine band honors the classic sound but injects individuality whenever it hits the bandstand.

As bassist Bill Markus explains, the music and the Quintet are a labor of love, but worthy of the commitment. "Not many bands can afford to play for the money that we make at Colombo's," referring to their Eagle Rock restaurant showcase. "But we stay because we love the music. We all play in different bands," he notes, from a break at a West Hollywood sound check.

That goes for Caine, an optometrist with a Highland Park practice. "We're working," Caine says dryly, from his South Pasadena home, "and that's an accomplishment. I'll be playing with Jump With Joey at the Roxy Saturday night. I've played with them for years, and I like ska. It's Jamaican soul music with the emphasis on the backbeat. And I did some of my earliest playing in soul and R&B bands."

The Elliott Caine Quintet convenes in the courtyard of Vroman's Bookstore Sunday afternoon, as part of the Pasadena Playhouse Assn.'s free summer concert series.

An Indianapolis native, Caine studied the work of Freddie Hubbard, Clifford Brown, and Miles Davis, but his prime inspiration was and remains Lee Morgan. The gifted Philadelphia trumpeter was known for his brilliant musical ideas, superlative technique and undisciplined personal life. He died of gunshot wounds in 1972 at age 33.

"You know," Caine solemnly advises, "Sunday is Lee's birthday; he would have been 78. We'll be playing some of his songs, because we always want to remember him." There are probably few bands in the world that carry as many of Morgan's compositions in their books as the Quintet.

As a founding member, Markus knows the importance of the ongoing process of refining the work of the Quintet's rhythm section. He sees drummer Kenny Elliott (no relation), a Chicago-bred veteran with experience that includes the Count Basie Orchestra, as the hole card. "Kenny has been so important to this rhythm section," the bassist stresses. "The pianists seem to come and go but a lot of what Kenny and I have together can't always be rehearsed. We don't always know what Elliott's going to do. We let him go wherever he wants but he knows we've got his back."

In the Quintet's 20-odd years there have been inevitable personnel changes. The passing of tenor saxophonist Carl Randall in 2012 was a hard blow. The journeyman Randall had been featured in the Gerald Wilson Orchestra and played in Freddie Hubbard's mid-'70s band. "Carl was the ultimate team player," Markus points out. "We've had some chop monster sax players in who've played great solos, but when the heads (musical theme) came around, they were nowhere to be found; Elliott was out there on his own. Carl just made those heads sound so good."

"He was unique," Elliott stresses. "I heard some Joe Henderson in his playing, maybe some Junior Cook. But Carl wasn't a clone. He studied Coltrane, Rollins and the other giants, but Carl was always a unique, solid player with his own voice."

The physical demands of the trumpet are notoriously rough on the body. Caine discloses that he began breaking in a new trumpet in January and he's changed mouthpieces. "The trick," he admonishes with a smile, "is to learn how to play it while doing the least amount of damage to yourself. Don't jam the trumpet against your face; use a soft pressure. But," he adds, "no matter what register you're playing in, it's got to be lyrical. Lyricism and melody conquer all."

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What: Elliott Caine Quintet

Where: Vroman's Bookstore Courtyard, 695 E. Colorado Blvd., Pasadena

When: Sunday, July 10, 3 p.m.

More info: (626) 744-0340, vromansbookstore.com

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KIRK SILSBEE writes about jazz and culture for Marquee.

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