Matt Slocum had only been in NYC for a couple of years when he debuted as a leader with the impressive Portraits (2010). Nevertheless, his prowess as both a drummer and composer instantly propelled him high in regard for both of those crafts in a town that has an awful lot of good ones. Since then, he built on that reputation with a trio record, After the Storm, just a year later. After spending more time getting things just right, album #3 is finally arriving.
Black Elk’s Dream (April 1, 2014, Chandra Records) is in a sense, a return to the beginning. There’s Gerald Clayton on and Massimo Biolcati on bass as on the trio date, but the saxophones of Walter Smith III and Dayna Stephens return from the first record. This time, though, Slocum ties his compositions together with a background narrative, this being John G. Neihardt’s 1932 book, Black Elk Speaks, a story about Oglala Lakota medicine man.
As these are all instrumentals, the link between the songs might not be so obvious to detect but the focus and attention to detail inspired by that storyline is. And Slocum doesn’t just lead, he leads by example: he is a master at exploiting the tonal palette of his drum kit to conjure up rich colors of sound and weave it into song; it’s as if he composed it that way.
For “Pine Ridge” Slocum just lets the melody float above his airy mediations, at one point, even dissipating completely to allow Clayton to ruminate alone. It gets even knottier behind the front line during “Ghost Dance,” where Slocum is coming at the rhythm from multiple angles. Smith provides harmonic direction and Clayton delivers a funky solo, ably steering around Slocum’s polyrhythms.
Slocum’s tactic for much of the title cut is to play the bass line almost by himself. Meanwhile, Clayton plays with the right amount of tautness to keep the melody moving along but avoids overpowering the drums and Stephens offers a very poetic sax. Just Smith and Slocum set “A Blues” in motion, where Slocum’s trademark frisky but light-footed patter comes to the fore.
Among the softer numbers like “Yerazel” and “Days Of Peace,” the use of brushes underpins the eloquent saxophone expressions by Stephens and Smith, respectively. Pat Metheny’s “Is This America?” is the only song on the album not composed by Slocum, and Metheny’s heartland folk comes out through Stephens’ saxophone.
Both saxophonists appear together for a couple of songs, such as “A Disappearing Path,” anchored by Biolcati’s slithery bass line that Slocum tirelessly adorns. Clayton again plays with an airy, unhurried disposition that leaves enough space with which the rhythm section can thrive.
Black Elk’s Dream confirms that the positive reception Matt Slocum earned as a newcomer should only grow now that he’s a seasoned vet who keeps elevating his craft.
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