Interview with Steve Slagle
(by Frank Tafuri)

Tafuri: New New York. New New York is a pretty long way from Los Angeles, California.

Slagle: Well, that's where I was born, but at this point I'm a full-fledged East Coaster, New Yorker. I've been here long enough to qualify for that. My family moved when I was in fifth or sixth grade to the East Coast, and then right after high school I was in Boston, and then from Boston to New York. My roots are Los Angeles as far as growing up, but not in any other way. So New York's my home, and has been since 1976. All the music and all that's influenced so strongly since then is all part of what I'm creating now. New York probably has the biggest role in a lot of that inspiration.

Tafuri: Well, it's interesting, because since you came to New York you've really worked with a wide variety of groups; everybody from Machito to Jack McDuff to Carla Bley to the Mingus Big Band...

Slagle: That would all be the influence of New York, all of those, because Machito and the Afro-Cuban Orchestra had their heyday when Bird played with them. It was an honor to have that be the first gig I had playing lead alto. You know, Charlie Parker and Cannonball both played with that band, and a multitude of other good alto players —not to mention Mario Bauza, who's really responsible for it. All that is New York —all the bands you named there are things that have come out of and grow out of New York. You know, American Jazz music. When you come here as a player, it's nice to be able to work as a sideman in that legacy of music. That's what you have to do in order to survive. Although, in the period we live in right now, you notice young cats getting record contracts at a very young age. I would let anybody know that people that came up with me —and I could name all of them —none of us had that happen. In the seventies and eighties, there weren't record companies giving twenty-year olds record contracts. What you had to do was work as a sideman with other bands —work with other bands, and create your own music also. Be working with somebody that you respect, and in somewhat of a direction of what you're doing. I learned from all those people that you mentioned, and a whole lot more.

Tafuri: Sort of "College of Hard Knocks"?

Slagle: Yeah, I guess..."College" is funny, because the idea of music college has become a predominant business and opportunity to be a part of teaching, but again, when we came up, there were only two or three jazz schools in the United States. I'm not talking that long ago, I'm talking about the seventies, not ancient history. There weren't "jazz schools." Then, you did come up as a player. There weren't "Real Books" with all the tunes written out; you had to get them yourself, and that's what we did. That's what people would be doing now, too, if it weren't for the age of information. You have so much available that you can click on your computer and have a lead sheet sent to your email.

Tafuri: Yeah.

Slagle: That's cool too —I'm not against all that. It's just, that wasn't what was happening at the time we all came up.

Tafuri: You either had to scramble to find one, or transcribe it yourself.

Slagle: Really, transcribing it yourself is the best way to learn. It takes a long time, but it's really the best way to learn music. Or to look at the actual composer's score for the music. And in case, like Thelonious Monk's music, there weren't composer's scores, the best way was to listen to his records and transcribe them. Which I did plenty of.

Tafuri: It's funny to hear you talk about college, because when you came to the East coast, you actually came on a scholarship to Berklee, didn't you?

Slagle: When I came to Berklee, yeah. The first year I had a Down Beat scholarship. I think they still give them, Down Beat magazine. So that's how I lucked out, was able to get some of the bills paid.

Tafuri: Cool. Well, we were talking about all the different styles of music and people you worked with, that are all New York —and here we are doing this New New York album with, I think, an infusion of a lot of those influences. Like for instance, you've got his tune on here called "Loftology"?

Slagle: Yeah. Because when we came up, I actually had a loft with a few other guys —Billy Drewes, Keith O'Quinn, Dennis Irwin, who are all guys on the scene here in New York now. We had a loft together on 26th Street, and then right around the corner Joe Lovano had a loft on 23rd St, and a couple other guys. I remember, the trumpet player Mike Lawrence, who has passed now, unfortunately, he had one around the corner, and a whole lot of guys. Dave Liebman had one right around the corner from us. Then the ones that got to be somewhat well-known, like Studio Rivbea, which was Sam Rivers, and Kobe Norita [?] who had a jazz loft and a scene. Dom Romao had one called "Black Bean", which was like a Brazilian scene. None of that exists now, but we all came up playing more in those than in clubs. In the seventies and early eighties, the economy was different to the point where people got their own little spaces happening, and put on things. Jam sessions would take place there, whereas now they're taking place in little clubs, downtown. In any case, people find a place to play, and that's what we did. For this record, I'm writing songs kind of off of different parts of the era in New York that I experienced, and that's one I really liked how it came off on the record. That one, you know, I had Joe Lovano as a guest with the quartet. It's part of the feeling of how we all came up playing. 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. It was interesting, but economics still took place, because in the end people had to give up their lofts for economic reasons. It just wasn't the same environment as the usual selling cocktails and hamburgers. It was a little bit different, compared to the scenes now, the clubs that are out now.

Tafuri: So it wasn't just jam sessions in these places, you actually gave concerts there?

Slagle: Yeah. There were some that were concert environment places, and there were some, like Joe Lovano's place on 23rd Street, that weren't really that, but they were high-level jam sessions. Pretty high-level players coming to, let's say, the corner of Seventh Ave and 23rd Street, and playing. There were some that were strictly jam session and not for performance, per se, and then there were other ones that the people that owned it went into somewhat of a business, and would have an eight o'clock concert, or whatever. You know, there were both, and they were really proliferating in the city at that time. Very few left now, if any, because of the real estate moguls.

Tafuri: Sounds like it was great fun.

Slagle: Well, it was interesting era. Therefore, the song "Loftology," the title I came up with —the study of lofts. [Laughter]

Tafuri: How about the study of The Bowery?

Slagle: Well that one, "Bowery Blues," that's a number that shows a deeper connection. Dave Stryker and I were doing a gig in Chicago a couple months ago, before this recording was made, and we came up with those changes, and then I wrote a melody over it when I came back to New York. That bluesy kind of feel was first born in Chicago for us, but I was thinking of the idea of the Bowery when I came to New York and wrote the melody a week or so later. I think it really does have a feeling of that area of New York —Lower East Side, Bowery area. I told Gene Jackson to play like he was falling down the stairs on that. I think he accomplished that.

Tafuri: He definitely kept falling down. [Laughter]

Slagle: It's got a real nice loose feel to it, and also the slide guitar, that's something I heard Dave Stryker do in a couple of more traditional blues environments, on different gigs that he did over the last year. I heard this slide guitar, and I thought, "Man, I want to write something that has alto saxophone blending with slide guitar," which I hadn't heard anyone do. There's something about the slide guitar that is "saxophonistic" because of the way it can bend notes the way we do on the saxophone. I wanted to write something that wouldn't be a traditional blues, but had that aspect to it, and had the guitar and alto playing a line together. I was happy that that came off as what I was trying to do. I didn't want to just write a blues riff, which is what slide guitar is usually used on. Of course Dave didn't hesitate to tell me after we recorded that, "Man, it's not so easy to play slide on those kind of changes." [Laughter] It's not easy, and he of course reminded me of that. And he plays the hell out of it, I must say.

Tafuri: He does. Does the Bowery have any special significance for you, having lived in New York for so many years?

Slagle: Yeah, sure, because I lived in the East Village for four years. That was the era that I was playing with Carla Bley, the early eighties or mid-eighties. I lived in the lower East Village, the Bowery was right around the corner, and that whole vibe was part of my life. I liked it; I still like that area in some ways. I like the restaurants, the people, beautiful women...[laughter] Not to mention panhandling bums, man. It's all part of the whole scene.

Tafuri: Well, there's definitely a funk factor down there, that's for sure.

Slagle: That's what's great about New York. You've got a lot of different things happening, it's not just this or that. The Bowery is thought of as traditionally where all the bums hung out. But you know, in our modern times it's more spread out, so you wouldn't say it's just on the Bowery. That area of New York has a personality of its own, and I hope the song somewhat fleshes that out.

Tafuri: There's another original on the album that has an actual locale to it, and that's "St. Mark's Shuffle"—

Slagle: Oh yeah. That's a piece that's like a catchy line for guitar and soprano. You know, I was also thinking of St. Mark's in Brooklyn, even though it's more well known in the East Village. I lived in both areas. In Brooklyn, in Ft. Greene where I lived for eight years, Betty Carter was around the corner, and a lot of musicians lived in that area of Ft. Greene. St. Mark's is a street there, right near the Brooklyn Academy of Music, and there's a really hip artistic scene there in Brooklyn. This song just reminded me of those streets, both of them. I like the neighborhood in Brooklyn, in Ft Greene. It has a real history to it, and I really liked living there for eight years.

Tafuri: Speaking of different areas, there's this tune on here —I like it a lot —called "Blackwell's Manhattan".

Slagle: The drummer Ed Blackwell was a big inspiration to me from childhood on. I listened to him when I was first listening to Ornette's music; I was a young kid, and I first heard the freedom and the rhythm that was in Ornette's music. Eddie Blackwell's responsible for so much of that on the records that he's on with Ornette (which is quite a few). I got a chance to play with the great drummer shortly before he passed, on a tribute record to Thelonious Monk that's out on A&M, called That's the Way I Feel Now. I played one cut with Eddie Blackwell, and that was a great experience. His playing is really what inspired the rhythm on that particular number. I wanted to get a kind of "Blackwell rhumba" that he does. When a drummer has that personal of a sound, you can really tell from just a few bars that it's that guy playing drums. Usually, we associate that with a saxophone player, but Blackwell was real personal. So I was inspired by his rhythm, and just created a song that would have that rhythm in it. I called it "Blackwell's Manhattan" just because Eddie Blackwell was from New Orleans, and you would think that his rhythms that are more New Orleans-ish would be his New Orleans influence. But I think he also, like me, was somebody who really was a New Yorker in his life —a lot of his rhythm is New York rhythm, too. That's the aspect of this that I'm talking about. His second-line playing in New Orleans style is great too, and that would be a whole other song.

Tafuri: You mentioned playing on That's the Way I Feel Now. Did you also play with the Carla Bley band on that record?

Slagle: Yeah, we did a cut on that same record with Johnny Griffin. That's the only time I played with Johnny Griffin on a recording. Those two cuts that I'm on, I'm kind of proud of. The one with Eddie Blackwell is unique, and Carla wrote a great tribute to Monk that she had Johnny Griffin play on.

Tafuri: That's what I was gonna say —I think it's "Misterioso" is the tune—

Slagle: —that's right—

Tafuri: 'Cause I love that record. I also like that thing with Bobby McFerrin and Bobby Dorough, and somebody like Dave Samuels playing vibes, they do "Friday the Thirteenth".

Slagle: Yeah, there's some nice stuff on there.

Tafuri: You know, I wanted to ask you about that —you're also sort of tribbing Monk on this album, in one of the jazz standards on here —doing "Thelonious"?

Slagle: I guess everything he wrote is standard for us nowadays. That's kind of a little bit more obscure of a song of his. It's an interesting song, because the melody, the lead melody, is only one note really, at least on the A section. It's a one-note melody that has harmony underneath on the piano —when he played with his quartet, in other words, it would be the saxophone playing the melody and the piano playing harmony. What I did on this recording, is just write out a harmony for Joe Lovano on tenor saxophone, and then have alto playing the lead melody note, and then just bass and drums. So I didn't use piano, which I like to do with Monk's things: still play the song as he wrote it, but play it without piano, since he pretty much played on piano what you would want to hear. I don't want to just repeat that. I like the way this one came off. We did that one in one take, Joe and Cameron and Gene and me. It was the first time we'd played it —what you hear is that, and I think it's quite an example of the camaraderie that Joe and I have as saxophone players. We've spent a lot of hours playing, getting back to the loft scene, and on gigs too —Joe and I have played together a lot. I was glad to pull that off the way we did on that piece. It's such a great song.

Tafuri: It's deceptively simple, because of all that harmonic stuff going on. Well, as long as we're talking about little tributes, I really love the duo with you and Cameron, and the tip of the hat to Charlie Mingus.

Slagle: That's something that producer Frank Tafuri asked me to do at the very end of the session. It ended up being a great idea, to do a quick, off the cuff.....God knows I've played that song six years with the Mingus Big Band, and we played that song a lot. It's a great song, and I always played it with the Big Band, and that was the first time I pared it down, just with bass and alto. It was real easy to do, just because of all the years I spent playing with that band and arranging for it.

Tafuri: Plus the fact that Cameron played in the Adams-Pullen Band.

Slagle: Exactly. With Dannie Richmond. Cameron Brown was very tight with Dannie Richmond. In fact, I dare to say that, next to Mingus, Cameron may have been one of Dannie Richmond's closest colleagues, as far as bass-drum hookup. Cameron is also one of my favorite bass players in New York. I think he's just a phenomenal musician. I'm really glad he could play so great on this record —it's really an honor. He'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.

Tafuri: And he always came back, in spirit and in body.

Slagle: 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.

Tafuri: There are two really beautiful ballads that you wrote for this album. One of them that I really love is this "What Goes Around Comes Around."

Slagle: Oh, thanks. That's a song that maybe isn't strictly a sketch of New York —it would be more like a love affair. Since I live in New York, that's where it took place. I've been playing it a little bit lately, bit it's funny —the recording that we did for New New York is really the definitive version of it that I've come to so far. I've even found since I've recorded it that when I play it, I kind of think of that solo on the record, and I almost make the mistake of trying to recreate the mood that's on this record, just because we hit it so strong in the studio that day. That's with Joe Locke on vibes. He's on two of the cuts on the record, and on this one he plays a great solo, and accompanies me. Actually, I've got to say as an aside, months ago I brought that to Joe's house, and I had like one chord that I couldn't figure out, and Joe with his great positive spirit and his great ability as a composer just got into the song, and helped me find that lost chord. I gotta credit it to him, and if anybody wants to know, it's a B-flat minor. [Laughter] I'm really glad he could play on this cut, because he was a part of the creation of it. We really hit on a mood, which sometimes in the studio, is the most important thing to try to do. If you have the music all together, you try to hit a mood. Sometimes, the studio can be a cold kind of place, and you get into this clinical vibe, which is a mistake. Really, music is about moods and feelings, and that's what try to get into in a studio. In the great records, that what it is. It's a little bit beyond the music, into a mood...if that makes any sense. We did that on this cut, you know?

Tafuri: You also have this tune that we kind of cooked up the title for, because it sounded almost like a Brazilian ballad: "Mañha de Hudson".

Slagle: Yeah, that one is a combination of 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 —and I got an alto flute, lower pitch than a regular flute. I wrote this melody for and on alto flute. I have played it on saxophone some on gigs, but I think it was conceived on alto flute, so I really like that we were able to do that on this record, and get a really good sound on just alto flute, acoustic guitar, which Dave plays, and acoustic bass. It's a really pared-down, naked sound on this ballad. It's kind of in the modern harmonic style, that's coming out of my love of Wayne Shorter's composition, and Herbie Hancock's composition, et cetera. I don't know if you can hear it directly on this song, but that's what I feel.

Tafuri: It definitely is a rich, beautiful sound. The melody, like the river, goes on and on.

Slagle: I think we got a nice thing happening on that one. It's a different texture than the rest of the record. That's the only one I play flute on.

Tafuri: It's a beautiful album. I guess we should talk about the title track a little bit, too.

Slagle: Yeah! "New New York" —that's a song I came up with in this apartment here, which is Upper West Side New York. We had come up with the title, and the idea that the record would be about New York, but I wanted to write something that I felt was representing the music that I think is new and best in New York right now. You know, a great drummer like Gene Jackson playing rhythm —that's swinging, but not a traditional swing feel. It's free in one way, but also got a real groove to it. I like to have both aspects —the freedom and a rhythmic groove.

Tafuri: He's definitely got a little funk, and a little hip-hop. Especially, you can really hear it on the trio version, I think.

Slagle: It's there in the song, and yet there's also a real freedom to it, and I like to get both of those in the music. This one, like you said, we have two versions of it on the record. It's not for lack of material [laughter]; actually, Dave Stryker got stuck in traffic. 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. [Laughter] I just said, "let's try this song trio." We did it trio, one take, and liked it so much that when Dave arrived an hour late, we played it again with guitar, and they're really different. It's not just like "well you added guitar on the same song" —you can hear a real difference between the two. When you play a song like that, you can play it different every time, and I think to have both of them on the record shows how you can look at a song in two different ways. I would be hard pressed to choose one or the other, so I'm glad we put both of them as like bookends.

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