Steve Slagle – Evensong – Panorama – Pan004, 56:36 ***1/2:
(Steve Slagle – alto & soprano saxophone, co-producer; Dave Stryker – guitar, co-producer; Ed Howard – bass; McClenty Hunter – drums)
The difference between saxophonist Steve Slagle’s solo release, the nine-track Evensong, and albums by The Stryker/Slagle Band is a negligible one. Both projects involve Slagle (who has been affiliated with the Mingus Big Band, among other artists) and long-time musical friend, guitarist Dave Stryker (whose career path has included stints with Brother Jack McDuff, Stanley Turrentine and more), and both the Stryker/Slagle sessions and Slagle’s solo outing use a quartet. One variance is the amount of Slagle compositions vs. Stryker ones: on Evensong, Slagle has six credits, Stryker only has two (there’s also one cover by Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn). There’s also a personnel matter: while bassist Ed Howard has previously performed with Stryker and Slagle (he participated on the duo’s 2005 Live at the Jazz Standard and on Stryker’s 2005 record Big City), drummer McClenty Hunter is new to the Stryker/Slagle continuum (Hunter’s résumé includes Eric Reed, Jim Snidero and Jeff Majors). Musically, the nearly hour-long Evensong is similar to what Slagle and Stryker fans have come to expect: traditionally-minded post-bop, with grooves and welcoming melodies.
The opener, “Mingus in Us,” showcases specific jazz history, as well as Slagle’s compelling compositional talent. Slagle explains in his liner notes that “the first of this song Charles Mingus sang to me in a dream” and that Mingus then finished by saying, “Write a song based on that!” Not a typical nocturnal chat, but it led to this mid-tempo piece which has a bluesy undercurrent. While there are some Mingus quotes, the cut is not dedicated to Mingus but rather to Slagle’s colleague, the late bassist Dennis Irwin (Irwin and Slagle played frequently with Joe Lovano). Another fine tune is the sensitive ballad, “Quiet Folks,” a tribute to Jim Hall. The lyrical arrangement does, in fact, evoke Hall’s personality via Stryker’s flowing guitar lines and Slagle’s soaring soprano sax, which sometimes has a flute-like candor. Towards the midpoint, Howard delivers a warm bass solo which shows why he was an important member of Roy Haynes’ band and Clifford Jordan’s group. However, the most striking homage is “Equal Nox,” written on John Coltrane’s birthday, which happened to be on the autumnal equinox—when day and night are the same length: thus the title. “Equal Nox” does not echo any individual Coltrane work, but Slagle does stretch out on alto in ways similar to Coltrane’s lasting legacy, while Stryker, Howard and Hunter lay down a shifting, harmonious groove. Everyone has an occasion to improvise with some markedly discerning results.
Stryker’s two numbers are upbeat, with soulful touches reminiscent of his past material. “Supermoon” has a lively quality, with a dash of Afro-Cuban seasoning. Slagle’s soprano sax has a congenial measure which rides effectively above the drums, bass and guitar. Stryker is in superb form, particularly during his rustling solo spot. “Shadowboxing” is slightly more energetic and upfront, a propelling minor blues track which has sharp-witted metrical changes, several punchy solos and Slagle and Stryker’s absorbing give-and-take improvising, which demonstrates the two artists’ telepathic communication. And listen for Hunter’s drum solo: the young musician has some rhythmic chops. The twosome’s enduring amity is also displayed on the closer, a guitar/sax duet rendition of Ellington/Strayhorn’s classic “The Star-Crossed Lovers.” This came about after everyone else had left the session, and has a delicate, straightforward sensibility which proves that sometimes less is more.
TrackList: Mingus in Us; Blues Four; Supermoon; Quiet Folks; Shadowboxing; Alive; Equal Nox; B Like Me; The Star-Crossed Lovers