Liner notes for New New York (OmniTone 12005)
Agatha Christie called it "a detective story." Mayor John Lindsay called it "[not only] the nation's melting pot, it is also the casserole, the chafing dish and the charcoal grill." Poet e e cummings called it "the sensual mysticism of entire vertical being." Steve Slagle simply calls it home. New York, New York —the town so nice, they named it twice. And the town so full of gusto and diversity ... and music ... that Steve dug in right at the beginning and remained entrenched ever since.
From Steve Kuhn, Lionel Hampton, Woody Herman, "Brother" Jack McDuff, Ray Barretto and Carla Bley to Milton Nascimento, the Charlie Haden Liberation Orchestra, the Mingus Big Band and his own bands, Steve has run the jazz gamut in his twenty-plus years in the Big Apple. His first gig, when he arrived in 1977 from Los Angeles, was playing lead alto in the big band of legendary Afro-Cuban jazz pioneer Machito. "You know, Charlie Parker and Cannonball both played with that band, and a multitude of other good alto players," notes Steve. "When you come here as a player, it's nice to be able to work as a sideman in that legacy of music."
That legacy bubbles forth in Steve's attitude, playing and compositions —all beautifully captured here in New New York, an exuberant pæn to the pan-musical megalopolis.
Steve first encountered a thriving artistic jazz scene in late '70s New York where musicians created their own gigs by living and performing in (mostly downtown) lofts. He shared a loft with Billy Drewes and Dennis Irwin, near those of Joe Lovano and Dave Liebman, and frequented others, including Sam Rivers' Studio Rivbea and Dom Romão's Brazilian-tinged Black Bean.
Steve depicts that "study of lofts" in "Loftology," joined by fellow loftologist Lovano on tenor. "That's one song that's got a lot of freedom to it; it was a pretty open scene at that time —everything went, because you didn't have a club owner trying to sell cocktails," recalls Steve. Today, Steve performs as a member of Lovano's nonet and quartet. The romping "Thelonious" is a sunny example of years of camaraderie.
The funky "Bowery Blues" features Steve's longtime friend and collaborator Dave Stryker on ear-bending slide guitar. It sprang out of gigs with Stryker in Chicago shortly before the recording, but it was inspired by four years of living in the nearby East Village in the late '80s while working with the Carla Bley Band. "I like the restaurants, the people, beautiful women ... not to mention panhandling bums, man. It's all part of the whole scene."
Memories of a thriving Brooklyn street, as well as its East Village eponym, infuse "St Mark's Shuffle," spotlighting Steve's soprano sax. "In Brooklyn, in Fort Greene where I lived for eight years, Betty Carter was around the corner, and a lot of musicians lived in that area" recollects Steve. "We had a basement in our brownstone, full of musicians always playing, so it got known as the 'Music Building' ―even by Spike Lee around the corner. Except for the police giving too many parking tickets all the time, it was a pretty nice scene for a while."
Drummer Ed Blackwell, a New Orleans native who Steve believes was a New Yorker at heart, made an indelibly big mark on the Gotham jazz scene and on Steve's musical persona. Blackwell's highly personalized, melodically rhythmic style evoked "Blackwell's Manhattan." It incorporates what Steve calls the "Blackwell rhumba."
Love in the big city or, rather, love lost turns the mood personal and glowingly misty-eyed in the uncommon ballad "What Goes Around Comes Around." Vibist Joe Locke, another long-standing collaborator, joins Steve for music evocative of kindred spirits, transcending the sometimes cold, clinical studio environment. "Really, music is about moods and feelings, and that's what you try to get into in a studio," adds Steve.
The album's other ballad, the gently rolling "Mañha de Hudson" (Hudson Dawn), floats Steve's plush alto flute in the acoustic company of Stryker's guitar and Cameron Brown's bass. Influenced by the modern harmonies of Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock, it portrays, according to Steve, "a great view of the Hudson that I've witnessed —not only from my own home in the north of Manhattan, but from a friend's home across the river."
Framing the album are two takes —with quite different feels —of the title tune "New New York," representing the music Steve thinks is new and best in New York right now. Comments Steve, "I like to have both aspects —the freedom and a rhythmic groove." The trio version was resulted from Stryker being delayed traffic on the way to the session with the trio waiting, raring to go. "On the next record, I'll have a song called 'Stuck in Traffic' or something, because that's something that happens to us almost daily here in this city."
The spur-of-the-moment coda duet, Charles Mingus' "Nostalgia in Times Square," pairs Steve and Cameron Brown, two devotees of the music of the great bassist-composer and New York musical icon. (Brown played bass in the Mingus alumnus George Adams-Don Pullen Quartet.) "[Cameron's] also a guy who's come up through New York for quite a while. Wherever he's from, he's at this point a New Yorker," says Steve, concluding, "If you look at the history of these cats, it's really deep. We're living it right now, and he's a great example of that."
[Read complete interview with Steve Slagle.]