Recorded in a single day at a New Jersey studio, Steve Slagle’s first all-ballads collection in a four-plus-decade career finds the alto and soprano saxophonist moving seamlessly between standards (Tadd Dameron’s “If You Could See Me Now”), not-so-standard covers (Stevie Wonder’s “Kiss Lonely Goodbye”), and a handful of originals.
Choosing Miles Davis and Bill Evans’ “Blue in Green” as the opening gambit might seem a less than daring pick, but Slagle makes sure to customize it. Synth orchestration by Richard Sussman (who also appears on two other tracks) brings a slightly off-center eccentricity to the core melody, and Slagle’s soulful soloing gives the arrangement a contemporary edge that never suggests 1959.
Three more non-original compositions follow, a redrawing of Monk’s “Reflections” being particularly sweet. Slagle and pianist Bruce Barth, with assistance from Randy Brecker on trumpet, take their time pushing the melody this way and that over its eight-and-a-half minutes, the fine rhythm section of bassist Ugonna Okegwo and drummer Jason Tiemann giving the tune just enough swing a quarter of the way in to keep it lively.
Brecker turns up twice more on the recording, on the Slagle originals “The Heart of It” and “Big Mac” (the latter billed as a bonus cut). Anything but a ballad, “Big Mac”—a triple-headed tribute to the deceased McCoy Tyner and Jackie McLean, as well as the living bassist Andy McKee, according to Dan Bilawsky’s illuminating liner notes—is a cooker.
Why Slagle decided to close out the album with a track that defies its theme is his business, but be glad he did. It suggests another possible direction in which this talented player/composer might consider heading; if he does, hopefully he’ll call back the personnel that helped make Ballads: Into the Heart of It such a richly textured joy.