Alto Manhattan is a confident and intelligent follow-up to saxophonist Steve Slagle’s 2012 album Evensong. Kicking-off with a blues head (but with a twist) “Family” is a no-nonsense stormer benefitting from guests Joe Lovano on tenor sax and Roman Diaz on congas and some good tenor / alto “jousting” towards the end of the track. “Alto Manhattan” is Latino for the NYC area in which Steve lives, otherwise known as Upper Manhattan or The Heights. Here it’s represented by a brisk boppy number with Slagle leading a quartet on alto.
Slagle is heard alone wistfully soloing over the whole of Johnny Green’s “Body & Soul,” the first of three tracks not composed by the altoist. Slagle’s serpentine runs quizzically explore all the registers of the alto saxophone. McCoy Tyner’s modal “Inception” which first appeared on his 1962 debut album, here gradually transmutes into a minor blues. The affecting ballad “Guess I’ll Hang My Tears Out To Dry,” the third and final non-original number in this set is followed by the breezy “A.M.” which again features Joe Lovano on tenor. “Holiday,” a light and airy paean to the late Toots Thielemans sees Slagle appearing here on flute and joined by Lovano on mezzo soprano sax.
The final number “Viva La Famalia” with Slagle once more on flute, has a relaxed Latin feel and is constructed over a simple obligato bass line, at times redolent of some of Herbie Mann’s extemporised pieces, rendering it as a satisfying conclusion to a very good album.
We continue our wanderings in the jazz with this invitation to discover Steve Slagle , a saxophonist whose letters of nobility would hardly hold in a box of washing machine. Born in 1952 in Los Angeles, Steve Slagle grew up in Philadelphia and covered the walls of his chamber with prestigious musical diplomas from the Berklee College of Music and the Manhattan Music School. It was in New York that Steve took up residence in 1976 to start a high-level career, accompanying such sizes as the great Latin American jazzmen Machito (1908-1984) or Ray Barretto (1929-2006), the Pianist Steve Kuhn, great Lionel Hampton (1908-2002), “Brother” Jack McDuff (1926-2001) or Carla Bley. He is also on tour with clarinetist Woody Herman (1913-1987) and the legendary Cab Calloway (1907-1994).
In the mid-1980s, Steve Slagle began to become self-employed with the management of his own formations. His trick is jazz more or less strongly influenced by Latin sounds. He appears on albums of the Brazilian Milton Nascimento, travels the world in all directions and ends up expanding his musical spectrum with collaborations on behalf of Elvis Costello, Dr John and even the Beastie Boys. He also received a fruitful collaboration with guitarist Dave Stryker and a consecutive solo discography which now amounts to a good fifteen albums.
The latest is still a tribute to the Latin influences, since the title “Alto Manhattan” is a play on words that refers to the high Manhattan ( alto , in Spanish) and the alto saxophone, which is the battle horse of Steve Slagle . Horses, or rather couriers, it will also be discussed in regards to the musicians who accompany Steve Slagle on this album. Because the rhythms are rather go fast with Joe Lovano (tenor saxophone, mezzo-soprano), Lawrence Fields (piano), Gerald Cannon (bass), Roman Diaz (congas) and Bill Stewart (drums). These henchmen have to their credit some beautiful prizes. Bill Stewart crushed the skins at Maceo Parker, Pat Metheny and is a regular contributor to Joe Lovano, another former Woody Herman. Gerald Cannon is a shark of festivals and has played with all that the galaxy has of jazzmen, in the first rank of which are the Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers.
All the compositions of this album “Alto Manhattan” are signed Steve Slagle, except for three times : “Body and soul” , an old Johnny Green standard dating back to the 30s, “Guess I’ll hang my tears out Dry “ by Jule Styne and ” Inception “ by McCoy Tyner (a former collaborator of John Coltrane). There is therefore a classic vein in this disc, which emphasizes the individual outputs of musicians. Steve Slagle charred the saxophone reeds on nervous solos, Bill Stewart occasionally takes out a strafing of barrels of which he has the secret and the double bass of Gerald Cannon comes to give a rubbery suppleness to the pieces. Let us not forget the pianist Lawrence Fields, redoubtable on the ivories and fast as lightning.
“Holiday” is a title that pays tribute to Toots Thielemans, the immense Belgian harmonicist who died in 2016 after almost 65 years of career. This very cool and flourishing title the Caribbean is dominated by the flute, another instrument that has no secret for Steve Slagle. Started abruptly with “Family” , the album ends just as abruptly with “Viva la famalia” , which does not really know conclusion and stops net, as to suggest a huge jam that lasts still now.
Solid, cozy, chiseled and playful, this album is a feast for the ears and the mind. It already contains the first warning signs of approaching spring. Let’s enjoy it!
“In Just Time” is a cooker that cleverly alludes to the standard “Just in Time”. Even better is “Turning Point”, a waltz that gives the guitarist the most room on the set to play more contemporary blues lines that sting and burn. In other words, there is not a weak track in this set. Five solid musicians with searching hearts simply don’t leave room on the record for cliches or vapid interludes.
The title Alto Manhattan is a deft pun. Steve Slagle plays alto and lives on that island where some Latinos call the hilly upper end where he resides Alto Manhattan. Way uptown in the heights, Afro-Caribbean music emanates from everywhere. You get an education just walking around.
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.
Steve Slagle – ALTO MANHATTAN: I’ve actually reviewed a lot of Steve’s superb sax and flute work before, on several albums he did with Dave Stryker (just search for “The Stryker Slagle Band, and you’ll find them). This is the first time (I believe) that I’ve heard him as a leader – and he SMOKES! Six of the nine cookin’ tunes on the release are originals, so that makes it (of course) even better!