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Overdue Ovation: Steve Slagle Remains Optimistic with New Album

The veteran saxophonist and composer hasn’t let lockdown get him down

Steve Slagle (photo: Chris Drukker)
Steve Slagle (photo: Chris Drukker)

Optimism is an unlikely through line for a jazz statement born, reared, and recorded during a pandemic. But alto saxophonist and composer Steve Slagle 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.”  

Nascentia focuses on original compositions that Slagle developed and refined over several months of isolation beginning in late March of 2020. It’s 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 succor 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 honors the late Michael Brecker, 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, 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, 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.” The music is at once a reflection of Slagle’s belief (or hope) that we’re due for a post-COVID renaissance and a firm indication of strength gained through experience. Over more than four decades of top-tier performances in myriad settings, 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 remarks. “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.” 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 colorful 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.  

“In the worst of times, sometimes the best music comes out of you.”

Rolling into the ’90s, Slagle’s career mushroomed. Teaching at the Manhattan School of Music 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 ’70s, 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 honor 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.”  

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 and I are about the same age, and we met in Boston when both of us were about 19,” Slagle notes. “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.”

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, bandleading 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.” 

Recommended Listening

Mingus Big Band: Gunslinging Birds (Dreyfus, 1995)
Alto Blue (SteepleChase, 1997)
New New York (OmniTone, 2000)
The Stryker/Slagle Band: Live at the Jazz Standard (Zoho, 2005)
Alto Manhattan (Panorama, 2016)
Nascentia (Panorama, 2021)

Dan Bilawsky

Dan Bilawsky has been involved in jazz journalism for 15 years. His work has appeared in JazzTimes, JAZZed, 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.