Steve Slagle may be best known as the lead alto saxophonist in Carla Bley’s band. For several years, he has co-led a group with guitarist Dave Stryker, but on his new CD, “Alto Manhattan” (Panorama 6), he features an entirely new band with pianist Lawrence Fields, bassist Gerald Cannon, drummer Bill Stewart and conga player Roman Diaz.
On three tracks, Slagle shares the front line with a favorite collaborator, Joe Lovano. The album’s title is the Spanish name for Slagle’s New York City neighborhood, and the boppish title track appears twice, first in a quartet version, then later (in a track labeled “A.M.”) with Lovano added to the group. The second take is not significantly longer than the first, but Slagle, Fields, Lovano and the remarkable Stewart all make the best of their limited solo time. The opening track, “Family”, has a turbulent rhythmic feel that mixes jazz, African and Cuban traditions. Slagle’s alto and Lovano’s tenor make a formidable front line and each man contributes powerful solos which overflow with raw emotion. Fields’ solo line showcases his clear tone, and rhythmic imagination as he darts around the complex beats of the rhythm section. “I Know That You Know” is not the old standard, but an original slow blues written by Slagle, and it is fueled with an irresistible loose groove created by Cannon and Stewart. Slagle’s unaccompanied rendition of “Body and Soul” is an instant classic that stands alongside the great solo versions by Art Pepper and Sonny Rollins. Keeping in the tradition of those legendary players, Slagle navigates the changes with great skill, but never loses the thread or mood of the original song. McCoy Tyner’s “Inception” is loaded with driving intensity with Stewart egging on Slagle and Fields via jabbing accents from his snare and crash cymbals. Slagle’s arrangement of “Guess I’ll Hang My Tears Out to Dry” follows the pattern of Dexter Gordon’s famous recording, opening with the verse and continuing with two saxophone improvisations surrounding the piano solo. I’m not sure that this recording was intended as a tribute to Gordon, but it’s always good to hear this neglected ballad. The closing two tracks feature Slagle on flute, and like the opening cut, they celebrate musical diversity. On “Holiday” (dedicated to the late Toots Thielemans) Lovano’s G mezzo soprano saxophone adds a vocal quality to the ensemble, while Diaz and Stewart present a unified percussion section with elements of American and Hispanic musical traditions. The final track is an eminently danceable Latin improvisation called “Viva la Famalia” that shows again how these fine musicians break down all of their differences to unite in fine music-making.