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Saxophonist-composer-educator Steve Slagle named his 2016 album Alto Manhattan because the title had a double meaning, nodding to both his chosen instrument and his Upper Manhattan neighborhood —“alto” being the Spanish word for “high” and Washington Heights being the highest point of elevation on the island of Manhattan. That acclaimed disc included the song “Holiday,” which is dedicated to the harmonica ace Toots Thielemans (1922–2016).
On Dedication, Slagle’s latest Panorama release and 17th overall as a leader, the saxophonist and his talented crew (pianist Lawrence Fields, bassist Scott Colley, percussionist Roman Diaz and drummer Bill Stewart with special guest guitarist Dave Stryker) play dedications to several jazz greats. Among the honorees are Sonny Rollins, Jackie McLean, Joe Zawinul, Steve Swallow and Wayne Shorter. There’s also a tribute to painter Marc Chagall.
A native of Los Angeles, Slagle moved to New York City in 1976 and quickly began working with Machito & His Afro-Cuban Orchestra. Since then he has played with Lionel Hampton, Steve Kuhn, “Brother” Jack McDuff, Carla Bley, Mike Stern, McCoy Tyner’s quartet, the Mingus Big Band and the Joe Lovano Nonet.
For two decades, Slagle, 65, has served on the faculty of Manhattan School of Music. “My roots are Los Angeles but my music is all New York,” he said.
Below are edited excerpts from a recent conversation in Manhattan.
You played a one-nighter at Jazz Standard last night. How did that go?
It was a good night. The crowd was good and the sound’s great in that club, so I can’t complain. I sold some CDs and a lot of folks got to dig it, you know? In a way, it’s harder to do a one-nighter than a four-nighter. Even though you might think, “Oh, it’s four days, it must be harder than one.” But it’s like playing a wild card play-in game versus playing seven games in the World Series. It’s actually harder to just have one game that you gotta win as opposed to a chance to win four out of seven.
[That’s] because you can make adjustments over the four days. If you do one tune and you think, “Maybe that tempo would be better a little bit slower,” then the next night you can play it a little bit slower. But we’re living in an era right now where it’s mostly one-nighters. I remember Chet Baker telling me that he’d have eight weeks at the Lighthouse back in the day. He said, “Yeah, I could really get a band together then.” No kidding, man!
I’ve never had eight weeks in one club ever, and no one I know of ever has—not for a jazz gig. At the most, it’s one week now. The economy is real tight, even compared to the ’80s and the ’90s. I wouldn’t want to be 20 years old now. I’m glad I was 20 years old in 1972, man.
The days of the long residency—Ornette Coleman at the Five Spot for three months—are long gone.
Yeah. And that’s how you develop the music: I’m sure there were some times when you would go down to see Ornette and it might be sad the whole night. But with his conception, pretty soon shit would come together and it would be what we know of from Ornette.
Could you talk about the meaning of your new album title, Dedication?
Well, each song that I wrote is dedicated to a person or sometimes a place, as in the case of “Triste Beleza,” which I dedicate to the great spirit of music from Brazil. So there’s that aspect. And the other aspect of it is, in this Trumped-up country that we have now, if you don’t have dedication, more and more, nobody else is going to help you. There’s no funding like there used to be; the grants are controlled by serious gatekeepers now. I got five National Endowment grants in the ’80s and the early ’90s and now it’s like you have to jump through hoops to get one.
The amount of time you have to spend to even apply for a grant is ridiculous. I mean, 50 hours of work is a lot of time—making scores and sound files that have to be two-and-a-half minutes long—and then you get a ‘no’ on top of it. It’s not something you can do in an afternoon. So for me, the idea of dedication to your craft or your art is something you need now more than ever.
On both Dedication and Alto Manhattan, you incorporate some percolating Afro-Cuban undercurrents, courtesy of percussionist Roman Diaz. Does that kind of harken back to your early experiences in New York with Machito and Ray Barretto?
Definitely. But my thing is more of a collaboration of things than a strict Latin thing. It’s coming more from the New York Afro-Cuban thing, like what Dizzy Gillespie started in New York with Chano Pozo back in the late ’40s. That was the case of a great jazz musician collaborating with a really pure Latino musician, and that’s kind of what I’m doing with Roman, who is coming from the Ray Barretto school—that real earthy, salt of the earth, hard-hitting thing. Not the real-fast-hands showman kind of thing—it’s a little bit different.
My thing is coming from that New York experience of a Cuban guy like Roman meeting me, playing my music and putting his spirit on it. And I keep my spirit the same as it is, and we make music together. I’m definitely not trying to be something that I’m not. I didn’t come up in a Latin home. I was born in a Latin area of Los Angeles.
And in New York my first gig was with Machito … . I was the first gringo to play in Machito’s band, as far as alto sax. … When I stepped into that gig, I stepped into something I wasn’t well aware of. I was aware of Bird playing with Machito, but I essentially learned on the gig. I didn’t ever record with Machito; I sure wish I had. But at the time, I didn’t even think about it because we were working every day, and the last thing you want to do is listen to it again after you’ve done it every day at work.
So that was before Ray Barretto?
Oh yeah, that’s how Ray Barretto first heard me. We played opposite his band many times. I always dug Ray because I liked the roots that he had, which were in jazz. Ray knew a whole lot about the history of jazz and you could hear it in his playing. In that sense, I guess you wouldn’t call him a purist, either. He was a New York musician who liked all the good music that was a part of New York, and I could hear that in his drumming. I miss him. He was like an uncle to me, like someone who was part of my family.
Talk about some of the specific dedications on the new album.
Well, it’s funny [because] after the song comes, then I know what the dedication is. In other words, I don’t generally write a song with a person in mind. After it’s finished, the song then says it to me, that it’s coming from this or that kind of spirit. That’s what happened with the Toots Thielemans one I did on Alto Manhattan, the one I called “Holiday.”
On this new album, the opening track is “Sun Song.” It has a bright kind of sound to it. I wrote it and I liked playing it, and when I was trying it out a couple days alone I suddenly realized, “Man, that’s like Sonny Rollins’ spirit in that song.” I’ve been thinking a lot about Sonny lately because he’s sick and I heard that he’s been talking to a lot of people on the phone. I would like to call him but he doesn’t really especially want to meet new people on the phone.
I mean, I’ve met him but I’ve never been a phone buddy of his. There’s a few people that he calls every day and speaks to for hours. So I’ve been thinking about him and trying to send strong vibrations his way because that’s another person, since I was a really young kid, that I was always crazy about. I always liked everything that he did—pretty much every record and every live performance I’ve ever seen.
When I finally met him, it took my appreciation of him to another level. I was teaching at the Manhattan School of Music when he came in as a guest. This is in the ’90s and he was going to be interviewed by Ira Gitler on stage in the auditorium. Before the interview, he came to see my group of students—three or four of them standing there with myself—and he talked to them very sincerely.
Then afterwards he came up to me and said, “So, are your students doing well? Are they studying well?” He was really concerned with whether my students were studying well. He just has that kind of mind. He’s one of our treasures, man. He’s on the level of Stephen Hawking, where pretty much everything he says should be reported in the news. That’s how I feel about Sonny.
What about “Opener,” which you dedicate to Jackie McLean?
Jackie was a real inspiration to me personally towards the end of his life. He got to know me and he really complimented me and encouraged me. He showed me his neck strap that he had gotten from Bird. He said, “Man, check this out. On special concerts I always wear this.” It was an old funky one that I recognized from when I first started to play. In the 1950s, if you played saxophone, there were only about three companies that you had to choose from for neck straps, and I recognized the one that Bird had because I remember having one like that on my first saxophone. So it was cool when Jackie showed it to me … like showing me the Holy Grail.
I’ve always loved that  record he did with the Freddie Redd Quartet called The Connection, which actually wasn’t his writing but featured some great playing by him. The Connection was a play in New York about junkies and jazz and it was part of the New York theater scene for several years as an off-Broadway show. Jackie did it in the original New York production [in 1959] and then Dexter Gordon did it later [in a 1961 Los Angeles production]. Even though I was way too young to see it, my parents went. But I loved that record so much. It’s still one of my favorites of all of Jackie’s recordings.
They have one song on that record called “O.D.” Dig that! And it’s a real fast tempo.
What are some of the other dedications on the new album?
One of them is for Joe Zawinul. It’s actually Dave Stryker’s tune “Corazon,” which was on our Trio Mundo album [2004’s Rides Again on Zoho Music]. Manolo Badrena sang the melody on that version and, actually, Zawinul heard the recording we did and liked it very much. That was over 10 years ago and I always wanted to record it again with the alto playing the melody as it’s in a great range for the alto. So we recorded it for this new record and it just felt like it had Joe’s spirit. So it’s purely a Stryker song played by me and dedicated to Joe.
Another tune, “Watching Over,” is dedicated to the French painter Marc Chagall.
That piece came from a dream I had one morning, and the dream was very much like a Chagall painting. I was watching over from an ancient window and there were people below that seemed like they were in a painting, and they were also singing the beginning melody of this song. The music was inside of the dream, and when I woke up, I wrote it out that morning. So I dedicated this piece to Chagall, who was a fellow dreamer and an artist that I admire a lot.
You dedicate your composition “Niner” to Steve Swallow.
Yeah, when I was with Carla Bley’s band and playing a lot with Steve, for some reason he gave me the nickname Niner. This song has a nine-bar melody but it is deconstructed by the bass line. So it seemed a perfect fit to dedicate it to my friend Steve—for the number nine and also for the bass part that is written out for this song.
There is one cover tune on the album, Wayne Shorter’s “Charcoal Blues.”
That’s a great, unique blues from his Night Dreamer album . I first heard Wayne when I was 10 on the Jazz Messengers album Meet You At The Jazz Corner Of The World. On that particular record he was not even playing his own compositions, but I was struck by his sound. And I still am. I actually had not heard the original recording of “Charcoal Blues.” Somehow I missed that first Blue Note album of Wayne’s. But Stryker started playing it with a different arrangement and I dug it. It’s a funky blues, a good tune to end the album on. And we play it pretty differently than the record that Wayne made. We kind of make it our own.
Do you remember the thing that originally got you hooked on jazz and alto sax in particular?
Yes, the first live concert that I heard was Dave Brubeck with Paul Desmond at a college in Los Angeles in 1959. My dad took me and I still remember it, man. I can’t remember any songs that they played but I just remember the aura of just watching Paul Desmond. I didn’t care as much [about] anybody else in the band. I still remember just sitting there and listening to Paul Desmond’s sound. My father told me that I was spellbound.
The Brubeck Quartet was at its prime then and they were playing a lot of colleges then, which at the time was a new thing. They even made a  record called Jazz Goes To College, which my parents had. That was a big deal because none of the greats that were before Brubeck ever did a concert at a college, so it was kind of a new thing. Now, of course, it’s not.
For more info on Steve Slagle, visit his website. DB
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