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Matt Slocum: Black Elk’s Dream

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Black Elk’s Dream is a concept album. Its storyline belongs to the Lakota Sioux medicine man and visionary who relayed his life’s narrative to John G. Neihardt for the book Black Elk Speaks, published in 1932. Through drummer and composer Matt Slocum, 82 years later, Black Elk speaks again.

It is a meticulous, deeply realized work, remarkable not only for its coherence as a single arc but also for its evolving, authentic poignancy. “Ghost Dance” and “Days of Peace” are musical correlatives to Black Elk’s vision of the wholeness of earth and its creatures. “Black Hills” and “A Disappearing Path” contain desolation within resignation. Long before Black Elk’s death in 1950, the Lakota had lost their land and their age-old way of life. Pat Metheny’s “Is This America?” belongs within Slocum’s suite, because it is the most ethereal of protest songs.

This dreamlike, lyrical, fervent, floating music is capable of erupting in joy or pain. Slocum’s quartet contains Gerald Clayton on piano, Massimo Biolcati on bass and either Walter Smith III or Dayna Stephens on tenor saxophone. Smith’s furious outpouring on “A Blues” is stirring. So is his gentle, poetic reflection on “Pine Ridge.” (It is a reservation, Black Elk’s final home.) Much of the power of this record resides in the darkness of Stephens’ tenor, the passion of its slow burn.

The title track and its variants are the album’s thematic heart. As “Prelude” becomes “Black Elk’s Dream,” the same cell of melody moves from sadness to high energy and affirmation. Motifs recur, even in Stephens’ solos that sound so free flowing. Clayton is the primary keeper of Slocum’s thematic connections. His solo interlude “A Dream Revisited,” and his concluding meditation “End of a Dream,” exemplify one of the enduring paradoxes of art: Truth is beautiful even when, or perhaps especially when, it portrays human suffering, because truth in itself contains hope.

Originally Published