Steve Slagle is one of those players that's often overlooked yet hard to forget. Why this sixty-five-year-old saxophonist who's constantly bringing energy and a spirit of exploration to the fore doesn't get the ink or marquees that come to his musical peers ten years his senior or several decades his junior is something of a head-scratcher. If you've seen him as a sideman, encountered him co-leading a band with guitarist Dave Stryker
, checked out his duo work with pianist Bill O'Connell
on The Power Of Two
(Panorama Records, 2015), or heard any of his fine recent leader dates, like Evensong
(Panorama Records, 2012) or Alto Manhattan
(Panorama Records, 2016), it's fairly likely that you're wondering the same thing.
While there's no firm explanation about Slagle's status, other than the fact that many jazz lovers are polarized and look only toward the "new thing" or focus exclusively on extreme longevity, there's no doubt that his name should be high on the list of stellar alto players plying their trade on the scene. This album, referencing both the man's steadfast study of his craft and the dedicatory nature of these songs, is but one more example of his strengths.
With a stellar band by his side, Slagle delivers nine numbers that clearly point toward his influences, preferences, and experiences. "Sun Song," a bright and grooving calypso honoring the great Sonny Rollins
, leads off the program. Then comes "Niner," a hip and angular tune taking its title from a nickname bestowed upon on Slagle by bassist Steve Swallow
; "Major Come In," an up-tempo thriller given unto swing itself that works off of major chords in five different keys and runs on Bill Stewart
's spang-a-lang ride work and Scott Colley
's driving bass lines; "Triste Beleza (Beautiful Sadness)," a breezy bossa nova dedicated to "the great spirit of music from Brazil"; and "Opener," nodding toward saxophonist Jackie McLean
, containing one of pianist Lawrence Fields
' most memorable solos on the album, and featuring the leader on alto and flute. In all five cases, one thought rings true: Slagle remains consistently inventive as he uses his imagination and skill to color within, right on, and just outside the lines.
The back-end of the album proves to be perfectly in line with what precedes it, presenting songs that are both grounded and intriguing. "Watching Over," for Marc Chagall, is straight-eighths and swirling colors, with the appealing Stryker-Slagle partnership in the spotlight. That duo's chemistry is then further highlighted on Stryker's Joe Zawinul
dedication, "Corazon," where melodic directness acts as a cornerstone and bass and nylon strong acoustic create a supportive foundation for the alto's melodic musings. To finish things off this band delivers "Sofi," a soprano-fronted song in seven dedicated to Slagle's daughter, and Wayne Shorter
's "Charcoal Blues," saluting the piece's composer and providing a welcome dose of earthy blowing. There may be saxophonists who've been in the game longer and/or pushed more boundaries, but you'd be hard-pressed to find a more dependably "on" player than Steve Slagle.
Sun Song; Niner; Major In Come; Triste Beleza (Beautiful Sadness); Opener; Watching Over; Corazon; Sofi; Charcoal Blues.
Steve Slagle: alto saxophone, flute (5), soprano saxophone (8); Lawrence FIelds: piano; Scott Colley: bass; Bill Stewart: drums; Roman Diaz: congo, percussion (1, 4, 5, 6, 7); Dave Stryker: electric guitar (2, 4, 6, 7, 8, 9), nylon string acoustic guitar (4, 7).