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Cool Uncle: Inside 2015’s Smartest Retro-Soul Revival

Bobby Caldwell and Jack Splash’s intergenerational team-up yields silky-smooth bliss

Cool Uncle

Veteran soul singer Bobby Caldwell teams with modern R&B mastermind Jack Splash in Cool Uncle.

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Cross-generational collaborations between venerated older artists and youngsters with a modern audience are increasingly common: see Bettye LaVette and the Drive-By Truckers, Mavis Staples and Jeff Tweedy, Mary J. Blige and Disclosure, or the Doobie Brothers’ duets with country stars. The phenomenon does the Internet-age obsession with reissues one better, suggesting that elders still have plenty to offer the present.

The latest entry in this pool is Cool Uncle, the result of a partnership between vocalist-songwriter Bobby Caldwell and the producer Jack Splash. Caldwell emerged as a solo act in 1978, specializing in dulcet R&B. The production on his early records is impeccable: the punch of the drums, the plump tone of the bass, the candied, pillow-soft harmonies. There’s a catlike quickness in the arrangements that’s unusual for music this luxurious. The chorus of 1979’s “My Flame” comes in from an odd side angle and twists just out of reach. The band stays on high alert during 1980’s “It’s Over,” ready to dart in any direction, keeping Caldwell in sight as he suddenly climbs the scale.

In the subsequent three and a half decades since his debut, Caldwell has continued to release albums. Consistency is his hallmark, as he works to hone his velvety soul: with only minor adjustments, songs from 2005’s Perfect Island Nights could just as easily have shown up on his first record. His web of influence also expanded as a songwriter, as his compositions have been recorded by Roberta Flack, Roy Ayers, Natalie Cole, Neil Diamond, Boz Scaggs, Chicago and Al Jarreau.

These sort of soothing, golden sounds never went away, but during the 2010s, they have reemerged in pop’s mainstream. You can find them in Daft Punk’s plush opus, Random Access Memories, Pharrell’s
G I R L and the new album from the English soul singer Jamie Woon. Country acts like Lady Antebellum, Brett Eldredge and Billy Currington reach for the sumptuous possibilities of the late Seventies and early Eighties. Two other current proponents of this style, Mayer Hawthorne and Jessie Ware, make guest appearances on Cool Uncle’s self-titled debut.

Caldwell’s wife is the one responsible for Cool Uncle: her Google Alert turned up an interview with Jack Splash that claimed Caldwell as an influence. “I thought, man, that’s kind of bizarre,” the singer remembered. “Because he’s 20 years my junior. My wife encouraged me: ‘Why don’t you give him a call?’ We hit it off on the phone.” When they met in person for the first time, they bonded “like old friends.” A shared love of Jack Daniels accelerated the process.

Splash has an impressive résumé — he’s won three Grammy awards for work with Jennifer Hudson and Cee-Lo. Some of his most vivid productions went unrewarded: Anthony Hamilton’s “Please Stay,” a graceful, self-immolating ballad, and R. Kelly’s “Be My #2,” which is fleet disco. These songs demonstrate a rich appreciation for R&B’s history, but unlike many other homages to tradition, they don’t feel stilted.

Uncle Cool

In Splash’s telling, his meeting with Caldwell seems fated. He still remembers the first time he heard about the singer. “An ex-girlfriend dumped me,” he recalls. “Her next dude, probably the following week, took her on a date. The first date — I was like, what a chump, who does this on the first date? — took her to a Bobby Caldwell concert. At that time I didn’t know his name; I only knew the music. I said who the F is Bobby Caldwell?” That ex had a profound impact on Splash’s subsequent creative output. “For years and years,” he notes, “I was making — in my mind — Bobby Caldwell songs.”

The duo recorded Cool Uncle in a series of sessions, with breaks in between to accommodate the singer’s tour schedule and the producer’s work on other projects. “I looked at it like we were own little weird garage band,” Splash says. “We came with open hearts, open minds and a bunch of weird ideas. And we started everything from scratch.” Their taste for Jack Daniels came in handy too. “Have a little taste of whiskey. Jam. Vibe. Push each other to write some better lyrics.” “Still trashy,” he adds. “But at least it’s a step above a Michelob.”

Splash quickly learned to keep the tape running at all times. “Bobby has a jazz aspect also,” he notes. “Sometimes he’ll be jamming on something, and he has the perfect groove, and then he just keeps jamming, and it might go somewhere completely different. So then I have to jump on him and be like, ‘Go back!’ And he’ll be like, ‘Go back to what?'”

Plenty of the grooves from the drink-jam-vibe stage made it onto Cool Uncle. Caldwell arrives about two minutes into the album — after a short intro and a verse and hook from Mayer Hawthorne — as silky and lovelorn as ever: “I was trying to ignore you, ’cause I had someone before you, but it didn’t work out at all.” The slick arrangement would blend easily with “Can’t Say Goodbye,” from the singer’s debut album. A DJ could also make a seamless transition from 1980’s “Open Your Eyes” to Cool Uncle’s “Break Away.” Jessie Ware makes an able sparring partner for Caldwell on this track. Next to her purrs, he sounds more anguished than usual.

One of the album’s best songs is actually a more modern outlier: “Lonely” suggests an impressive genre mash — lounge rock mixed by someone with an ear for the heft of contemporary hip-hop. According to Caldwell, he was “noodling around” in the studio the day the track came together. “I picked up this guitar and came up with this open tuning” that reminded him of the Police. (There are also echoes of “Shook,” by the indie-rock band Yuck.) But the beat is lightly programmed, and the bass has some of the detonating qualities favored in rap. Caldwell is pushy here, willing to give but also ready to take: “Tell me, are you lonely? Do you need someone tonight? Tell me the only one that ever treats you right.”

The duo recorded a number of “weird” songs that didn’t make it on to Cool Uncle. “We both love artists and producers who try to push the envelope,” Splash notes. “There were a couple songs that really were so cool and so experimental, it took everything in me to say, ‘Wait a second, if we put this on the record, his fans are going to get pissed off at me.’ They’re going to get mad that I’m doing some weird 808 shit with Bobby.”

But those longtime fans aren’t Splash’s only concern: He also hopes that Cool Uncle will attract some first-time listeners who “dig back through [Caldwell’s] catalog to the first couple albums.” “There’s some serious gems on there,” Splash adds. “That is really sweet of you,” Caldwell tells him. “I owe you a dinner.” And maybe a whiskey.  

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