The music on drummer Matt Slocum’s recent album Sanctuary (Sunnyside) draws inspiration from without—referencing Sufjan Stevens, Irving Berlin, Frédéric Chopin, and Ernest Hemingway—but the project actually finds its core strength through the respite offered within. “I didn’t realize it at first, but when I was looking back through these songs I noticed that they all deal with a sense of home and creative refuge,” Slocum explains. Ultimately, that grounding serves as the through line connecting these songs of solace.
A native of New Richmond, Wis., Slocum came to music early in life. He picked up piano as a child, switched to percussion as a preteen, and found his way to jazz through drummer Phil Hey, a renowned performer/educator (and Ed Blackwell disciple) who opened his pupil’s ears to Max Roach, Philly Joe Jones, and other giants of the drums. Slocum then spent his undergraduate and post-collegiate years in California, studying with heavyweight Peter Erskine at USC’s Thornton School of Music and cultivating a community with like-minded peers such as pianist Gerald Clayton and bassist Massimo Biolcati.
Since moving to the New York area in 2007, Slocum has created a series of albums that mark him as a meditative collaborator and composer. On 2010’s Portraits he worked alongside Clayton, Biolcati, and saxophonists Jaleel Shaw, Walter Smith III, and Dayna Stephens; for 2011’s After the Storm he focused solely on the art of the trio, jettisoning the horns but retaining those rhythm mates; with 2014’s Black Elk’s Dream he moved into the realm of concept art, using many of those aforementioned musicians to flesh out the story of the eponymous Oglala Lakota medicine man; and on 2017’s Trio Pacific, Vol. 1 he veered off in a new direction, fronting a bass-less trio with Stephens and guitarist Steve Cardenas. Each of those statements is of a piece with Slocum’s focused and reflective nature. “[Matt] has always had a deep love [for] and dedication to the music,” Clayton notes. “His approach towards the drums as well as towards the music he composes and interprets has always been sensitive and thoughtful.”
Sanctuary is no exception, but it does mark a significant change for Slocum. “In the past I’ve always tried to write specifically for the musicians who are going to be on the project,” he explains. “But this time, for whatever reason, I just decided to write a lot of different material without worrying about that approach. I made a decision to think about what the instrumentation would be later.” When that moment arrived, Slocum settled on a trio with Clayton on piano and Larry Grenadier on bass. The three form a simpatico set, bringing out the sense of “warmth, mystery, beauty, and exploration” that attracted Slocum to this lineup in the first place.
Although Sanctuary focuses almost exclusively on original music—Slocum penned seven of the eight tracks—it opens with a cover paralleling the leader’s feelings about Wisconsin. “Even though Sufjan Stevens’ ‘Romulus’ deals with his home state of Michigan, I really relate to the message of the song and the experiences described throughout the piece. I thought that particular melody would sound beautiful on the bass and I wanted to take a few creative liberties as far as the arrangement was concerned; a few modulations just to shade it and color it. As a whole, it’s a different, darker thing than what’s on the original recording. But, at least to me, it stays true to the story.”
Moving on to expanses of his own creation, Slocum examines life from myriad angles. “Consolation Prize,” a contrafact on Berlin’s “The Best Thing for You” chock-full of high-level interplay, is a tongue-in-cheek look at his “jazz musician” status in his wife’s eyes. A driven, Chopin-derived “Aspen Islands” and laidback “Star Prairie” are both direct nods to Wisconsin, recalling childhood sights in sound. And the tom-enhanced closer “Anselmo,” taking its name from a key figure in Hemingway’s For Whom the Bell Tolls, mirrors that character’s standing as a guiding light. Slocum even reaches back to his own earlier work, including an upbeat take on “Days of Peace” from Black Elk’s Dream.
While exhibiting a deft touch that recalls Erskine’s artful drumming, Slocum proves self-possessed, and a model of taste. “Even though this was my first time playing with Larry and Gerald together, everything just felt natural,” he says. “They both brought their personalities to the tunes and shaped them in ways—emotionally—that I didn’t anticipate. But the level of musical interaction within the trio was, for me, the most special aspect of the project.”