jazz created during covid captivity

from Norman Warwick

Alto saxophonist and composer Steve Slagle (left) can explain the surprisingly cheery tone of his latest album, Nascentia (Birth), in one succinct sentence:

´In the worst of times, sometimes the best music comes out of you´.  he told interviewer Dan Bilawsky for Jazz Times.

Mr. Bilawsky, himself, has been involved in jazz journalism for 15 years. His work has appeared in JazzTimesJAZZed, and All About Jazz, among other outlets. In addition, he’s penned liner notes for artists on Red, Capri, HighNote/Savant, Ropeadope, and other respected imprints. A band director with 20 years of teaching experience, he holds degrees in music from Indiana University, the Aaron Copland School of Music at Queens College, and Five Towns College. 

Bilawsky writes that ´Nascentia focuses on original compositions by Slagle, developed and refined over several months of isolation beginning in late March of 2020. Bilawsky descibes the album as ´a purely sanguine set that cuts against the mood surrounding a year of discontent.

We Release radiates kinetic energy at the outset, with a gleeful touch of Afro-Caribbean influence. The title track, drawing on Slagle’s creative horn meditations from the beginning of the COVID-19 lockdown, offers succour in straight time. And the attractive Who Compares To You?, passed down through a bandstand-based dream, sings like a long-lost standard. Even A Friend In Need, which honours the late Michael Brecker (right) , chooses swinging pleasantries over plaintive thought(s). ´

As Slagle explains, the feeling of the date was bright—and right—from the get-go.

´The first song we did was All Up In It, which is the first part of the title suite. It’s a driving and intense piece, so I thought we might run into a problem. But we nailed that in one take, first thing in the morning. It was amazing and it really set the whole vibe for the session´.

Although the writing largely defines the album’s direction, Dan Bilawsky, in Jazz Times, reckons ´the crack band that buoys the music is another key to success. Trumpeter Jeremy Pelt and trombonist Clark Gayton join Slagle up front, helping to flesh out his sharp horn lines, and the rhythm trio of pianist Bruce Barth (left) , bassist Ugonna Okegwo, and drummer Jason Tiemann paves each pathway with class and verve. New Note, driven by Okegwo’s adrenalized pulse and Tiemann’s supercharged stick work, gives space to admire Barth’s creative zeal. The muscular Agama showcases Slagle, Pelt, and Gayton in direct fashion. And Harold Mabern’s dreamy I Remember Britt, featuring the leader’s flute work, presents a beautifully nuanced slate of solos´.  

Slagle feels extremely fortunate to have been able to corral such an A-team.

´All of these guys are normally very busy, but everyone’s book was basically blank when we recorded in October´,” he says. ´And everybody was just so happy to be playing, working on something new and energetic and positive´.

As Bilawsky reminds us, the music is at once a reflection of Slagle’s belief (or hope) that we’re due for a post-COVID renaissance and is a firm indication of strength gained through experience.

´Over more than four decades of top-tier performances in myriad settings´, the journalist says, ´both birth and rebirth have repeatedly resounded in this artist’s story´.

Slagle came to the music early during his upbringing in Gardena, California.

´My parents were really into jazz, and I loved the sound of the saxophone from a really young age´, he recalls. ´So as soon as I was big enough to hold one, I got one´.

That instrument would eventually travel with Slagle as he cut his teeth in jazz and started gigging in Motown-style bands as a teenager. From there, the budding altoist went on to attend Berklee College of Music before making the jump to New York in the mid-’70s. 

There was no locked-in apprenticeship waiting for Slagle in the Big Apple, but he still managed to land on his feet quickly.

´I got lucky´, he remembers. ´The first gig I got was with Machito and His Afro-Cubans—the great Latin band that Charlie Parker and Cannonball Adderley had played with. A friend—saxophonist Bobby Porcelli—called me and told me that Machito needed an alto player, so I went down and jumped into this music that had been around since the ’40s. We worked literally seven nights a week, and it was all in the New York area´.

Bilawsky´s article neatly summarised what happened then.

´Leaving that environment behind after a solid year, Slagle joined Steve Kuhn’s band and broadened his horizons by touring and making his first on-record appearances on two of the pianist’s albums for ECM: 1977’s Motility and 1978’s Non-Fiction. Other notable sideman stints followed; there was decade-bridging work with a potent edition of vibraphonist Lionel Hampton’s big band, a soulful six months in the employ of organist Jack McDuff, and an ear-opening stretch with pianist/composer Carla Bley that segued into time with bassist Charlie Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra.

While carving out his place within and beyond those vastly different spaces, Slagle also began to develop his own voice as a leader. A quartet with guitarist Mike Stern, which sadly was never documented, proved to be a powerful vehicle that turned plenty of heads. A meet-up with Milton Nascimento’s rhythm section made for colourful sparks on Rio Highlife, Slagle’s 1986 debut on Atlantic Records. And a developing friendship with guitarist Dave Stryker would result in an artistic alliance and, later, a co-led ensemble.  

photo 5 Rolling into the nineteen nineties, Slagle’s career mushroomed. Teaching at the Manhattan School Of Music (left) during and after his own graduate studies there, he became a sage figure for an entire generation of fledgling jazz musicians. With a series of quartet dates on the SteepleChase imprint, he fine-tuned his instrumental stance and vision. Through work directing percussionist Ray Barretto’s multi-horn band, Slagle expanded his outlook and reach. And on the recommendation of saxophonists John Stubblefield and Ronnie Cuber, he was hired for the alto chair in the Mingus Big Band. 

Having briefly met Charles Mingus in corporeal form while narrowly missing the chance to play (in place of Lee Konitz) on the bassist/composer’s mammoth Three Worlds Of Drums in the seventies, Slagle was thrilled to commune with the master’s spirit in that Sue Mingus-helmed ensemble. He did so, officially, for 10 years, and his broad skill set eventually earned him the honour of serving as the band’s musical director and one of its arrangers.

´I wrote about a dozen arrangements while I was there, and they’re still a big part of the book´, Slagle says, adding that his relationship with the organization continues to this day. ´We even played a lot of them when I toured Europe with the band in November of 2019, which was my last time there before the shutdown´.  

Bilawsky updates the story, saying that ´at the dawn of the new millennium, fraternal bonds would foster some of Slagle’s most creative work. The Stryker/Slagle Band gained serious traction through a strong run of recordings and steady gigging, and the celebrated Joe Lovano Nonet provided a venue for him to have intermittent reunions with one of his oldest friends´.

´Joe Lovano (right) and I are about the same age, and we met in Boston when both of us were about 19´, Slagle told Jazz Times. ´We’ve played in different settings together over the years, and it was a pleasure to play with and write for that band. Any time I play with Joe—whether it’s on one of my albums or in one of his groups—it’s at the very height of music-making for me´.

According to Dan Bilowsky, collaborative ventures along these lines remain an important part of Slagle’s career to this day, as does high-profile sideman work, exemplified by a yearlong stint with pianist McCoy Tyner beginning in 2016. In parallel, band-leading has become an increasing priority. With the establishment of his own Panorama label, Slagle has been able to release a handful of stellar outings in the past decade and he hopes to find more opportunities for his own music to be heard. In the meantime, he remains characteristically content:

´I feel really lucky with what I’ve been able to do as far as music is concerned. I’ve played all over the world, received positive reactions, been able to make a living in New York City, own the place I live in and have a life with two beautiful daughters. So I’m not crying the blues. I’m very happy with my past and [I’m looking forward to] what my future might be´.

As we all look forward to what our future might be, with trepidation perhaps increasing daily due to covid and variants, there certainly are reasons for optimism as has just been proved by a bright and breeze press release from Ribble Valley Jazz And Blues Festival 2022 (left) that dropped into my mails just as I was about to post this article.

Ribble Valley Jazz & Blues Festival 2022
Festival Freedom Passes Available Now!
  We have some very special Xmas Offers!   Only 25 Early Bird Freedom Tickets available.
Get them NOW before the price increases after January 1st
  Early Bird Festival Freedom Passes – Bargains for all, our members and young people.
Get VIP access to all the ticketed shows at the Festival across all four days: non-members £80, members £70, U25s £20

The overall saving compared to buying tickets individually is at least 25% and up to 80% off!   It all begins with the opening show at the Grand with award winning Scottish vocalist Georgia Cécile on Friday April 29th with Alison Rayner Quintet and K.O.G (Kweku of Ghana)on Saturday 30th April – International Jazz Day. On Sunday we have Rafiki Jazz and  Issie Barratt’s Interchange and the finale on Monday is the Northern Jazz Orchestra. +Plus lots more gigs to be announced.   Treat yourself or someone you love this Christmas!
Only 25 Early Bird Freedom Tickets available
Freedom Pass price increases after January 1st
Ribble Valley Jazz & Blues Festival 2022 – April 29 – 30 / 1 – 2 May
Early May Bank Holiday Weekend

Don´t forget, though, the great radio jazz programmes that emanate from the valley.  Phil’s Jazz Pleasures 11 this month offers Jazz To Dance To-

 ´This month I want to look at jazz to dance yer socks off to, he tells us. We are going to do a jazzy playlist to fill the gaps at our Dennis Rollins FUNKY-FUNK gig on Dec 17th, this Friday, at The Grand and this got me thinking. I suddenly realised it was 25 years since that the wonderful Cuban Bueno Vista Social Club album was released.How great is that to dance to? So let’s start off with Chan Chan from that iconic album.

A total of twenty musicians contributed to the album (left)including Ry Cooder’s son Joachim Cooder, who at the time was a 19-year-old scholar of Latin percussion and provided drums for the band. Ry Cooder himself played slide guitar on several songs and helped produce and mix the album, afterwards describing the sessions as “the greatest musical experience of my life.”

Second choice is another Cuban musician – Mongo Santamaria – the percussionist who made such a wonderful version of Herbie Hancock’s Watermelon Man. But I have chosen that later. My first choice of his is the delightful Sweet ‘Tater Pie – you just HAVE to move this amazing rhythm. Quite wonderful music. Third choice is the foot tapping wonder that is Ramsey Lewis’ Wade in the Water; a jazz piece that actually got into the British and US charts. Those were days – now it’s just sampling and rip offs!

Talking about sampling as we were, you have to note St Germain – or Ludovic Navarre – who has sampled some amazing material – jazz, blues, funk and such – for his fantastic music. I saw him in Manchester at the turn of the century sampling away surrounded by many excellent African jazz artists. What a treat! My choice is Sure Thing which is a reworking of 100% Pure Poison’s 1974 much sought after jazz-funk album Coming Right at You. But the key to the track is the starting sample of John Lee Hooker’s Harry’s Philosophy track. This is sampling at its very, very best and always doing whilst surrounded by fantastic jazz musicians!

 Next choice comes from Herbie Hancock’s extraordinary Imagine Project album which used well over a 100 musicians. I have selected a wonderful version of Bob Marley’s Exodus featuring Tuerag musicians from the Sahara – notably Alhassane Ag Touhami. Just an amazing piece of music. As equally is my 2nd choice from the same album – Tempo de Amour – with great vocals by the Brazilian singer Ceu.

Jazz to dance to has to include a Dr John track (right) . I have chosen the delightful Mama Roux from Gris Gris. Percussion does not get better than this; nor Cajun influenced jazz. Back now to Mongo Santamaria for his extraordinarily lively and terrific version of Watermelon Man – dance, dance, dance.

 My ninth choice is that great funky jazzy band The Equatics with a version of Bill Withers’ Ain’t no Sunshine when she’s Gone – great version of an iconic track. I was compelled to put a Sly and the Family Stone track in this list – there are few better than Everyday People. Heart warming stuff – delightful.

 Last but not least a Booker T & the MGs track – Can’t Be Still – danceable music at its very best (left).

This Month’s Playlist, then, is

  1. Chan Chan – Bueno Vista Social Club on Bueno Vista Social Club
  2. Mongo Santamaria – Sweet ‘Tater Pie on The Colors of Latin Jazz: Soul Cookin’
  3. Ramsey Lewis – Wade in the Water on Priceless Jazz 18
  4. St Germain – Sure Thing on Tourist (re-mastered)
  5. Herbie Hancock – Tamatant Tilay – Exodus on The Imagine Project
  6. Herbie Hancock – Tempo de Amour on The Imagine Project
  7. Dr John – Mama Roux on Gris Gris
  8. Mongo Santamaria – Watermelon Man on Mr Watermelon Man
  9. The Equatics – Ain’t No Sunshine on Doin’ It
  10. Sly & the Family Stone – Everyday People on Stand
  11. Booker T & the MGs – Can’t Be Still on The Definitive Booker T & the MGs   

Don´t forget that Dennis Rollins´Funky Funk are performing at The Grand, Clitheroe, tonight Friday 17th December.

Also, on Ribble fm 106.7 you can hear Sue B Exloring all things jazz, blues and beyond. Sue invites you to discover new musical discoveries and timeless favourites as sdhe takes you on a musical treasure hunt  on the third Wednesday of every month, and cathes you up with jazz news from Ribble Valley and around the world.

Meanwhile there has also been prmising news for my Lendanear songwriting colleague Colin Lever. He has been awarded funding from Jersey Arthouse to produce a pilot podcast of his proposedc comedy series, Open Mic. What I have seen in a sneak preview of the script it is a  kind of imagined Whatever Happened To The Likely Lads Of Lendanear. There are penty of evocations of those halcyon folk days of the sixities and a wry look at the nearly fifteen minutes of (local) fame that sets Man dancing moth-like to a flame. We´ll keep you informed of developments and subsequent podcast timings.

The prime sources for this article included piece written by Dan Bilawsky for Jazz Times and a Ribble Valley Jazz And Blues press release.

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This article was collated by Norman Warwick, a weekly columnist with Lanzarote Information and owner and editor of this daily blog at Sidetracks And Detours.

Norman has also been a long serving broadcaster, co-presenting the weekly all across the arts programme on Crescent Community Radio for many years with Steve, and his own show on Sherwood Community Radio. He has been a regular guest on BBC Radio Manchester, BBC Radio Lancashire, BBC Radio Merseyside and BBC Radio 4.

As a published author and poet he was a founder member of Lendanear Music, with Colin Lever and Just Poets with Pam McKee, Touchstones Creative Writing Group (where he was creative writing facilitator for a number of years) with Val Chadwick and all across the arts with Robin Parker.

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