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Steve Slagle and Bill O’Connell – The Power of Two [TrackList follows] – Panorama

Steve Slagle and Bill O’Connell – The Power of Two [TrackList follows] – Panorama 005, 50:01 53:23 [6/5/15] ****:

(Steve Slagle – alto saxophone, flute, producer; Bill O’Connell – piano)

An affable, relaxed feeling pervades the 53-minute release, The Power of Two, featuring Steve Slagle’s alto sax and flute and Bill O’Connell’s acoustic piano. This isn’t the first time the two friends have worked together—Slagle has played on some of O’Connell’s albums, such as last year’s Imagine; O’Connell and Slagle have also appeared together as  part of larger groups. But this is the first time the two have done a duet project, just the two of them flowing through 11 tracks (five Slagle compositions; one by O’Connell; one penned by both; and four covers).

Slagle may be best known as a member of the Stryker/Slagle Band (co-led by guitarist Dave Stryker). O’Connell is probably recognized by most for his Latin jazz ventures such as the aforementioned Imagine or 2008’s Triple Play. For The Power of Two, though, Slagle and O’Connell avoid Latin jazz and stretch out on appropriately sweet pieces which are sometimes earthy (the Monk-like title track), sometimes breezy (an airy version of Dave Brubeck’s “The Duke,” one of several cuts which feature Slagle’s soaring flute) and sometimes a bit somber (a rendition of Miles Davis’ obscure “Circle” as well as the tribute, “KD Jr.”). From beginning to finish, Slagle and O’Connell create music which Panorama Records executive producer Jack Zulack states in the CD liner notes, “sounds effortless [but] is a level of musicianship that only a few achieve after decades of work in their profession.”

This undertaking started from loss. Steve Slagle wrote “KD Jr.” the day his longtime friend, pianist Kenny Drew, Jr., passed away (Drew died August 3, 2014). Slagle sent O’Connell the sheet music for his homage, and that ultimately led to this album. The seven-minute “KD Jr.” is an uplifting commemoration and is placed as the record’s literal centerpiece in the middle of the program. This is not a requiem, but rather a spirited selection which affirms Drew’s upbeat persona. Slagle gets loose on alto sax, lifting and drifting on higher notes but balancing them with soulful, lower notes, while O’Connell provides judicious rhythm and some wonderful soloing.

Slagle and O’Connell also do another tribute in the form of Dave Brubeck’s “The Duke” (a celebration for Duke Ellington, which was initially a quartet arrangement found on the 1956 outing, Brubeck Plays Brubeck). This variation is re-arranged with Slagle utilizing his flute, while O’Connell supplies a rhythmic grounding as well as impressive soloing. Fans of jazz flute (think Dave Valentin, whom O’Connell has performed with many times) will greatly enjoy this. The flute is also a highlight of another memorable cover, pianist Bill Evans’ classic “Peri’s Scope.” There is a whimsical, light-hearted tone throughout the nearly four-minute translation, including a jaunty piano solo. Quite fun. The final cover is “Circle,” which is the second tune on the Miles Davis Quintet’s 1967 LP, Miles Smiles. The sax and piano orbit round each other at times during the lengthy excursion (at 6:51, this is the second longest track), but mostly Slagle and O’Connell run a straightforward course with some sophisticated sax soloing and accomplished piano improvisation.

Other notables include the energetic “Good News,” Slagle’s optimistic composition about trying to find the brighter side of life; O’Connell’s equally positive “A New Day,” where listeners can practically perceive the warm sunshine which seems to filter through the arrangement; and Slagle’s beautiful ballad, “Into Your Grace,” which has a hymn-like quality. Engineer and mixer Chris Sulit nicely captures every nimble note from the flute, sax and grand piano, from lively flourishes to softer moments when notes linger in the air.

TrackList: Good News; One Life; Peri’s Scope; I’ll Wait and Pray; A New Day; KD Jr.; The Power of Two; The Duke; Circle; Into Your Grace; Whistling Spirits.

—Doug Simpson

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