Drummer/composer Matt Slocum‘s third album, Black Elk’s Dream, is out this week. Inspired by the book Black Elk Speaks, it includes 11 original compositions and a version of guitarist Pat Metheny‘s “Is This America?”; other track titles include “Ghost Dance,” “A Disappearing Path,” “End of a Dream,” and the like. The supporting musicians—pianist Gerald Clayton, bassist Massimo Biolcati, and saxophonists Walter Smith III and Dayna Stephens—have all worked with Slocum before. All of them, as well as alto saxophonist Jaleel Shaw, played on his 2010 debut, Portraits; his 2011 album After the Storm was a piano trio date, with no horns.
Slocum’s drumming is rock-steady, with a subtle swing that’s somewhere between cocktail-lounge suavity and hardcore jazz-nerd detachment. His tom-and-cymbal work recalls Elvin Jones on John Coltrane‘s Crescent at times (his interplay with Stephens on the 100-second “Prelude” seems to explicitly nod to that album’s melancholy-yet-intense dynamic), but he can set up a gentle, floating groove, too, without dissolving into a Paul Motian-like fog. Clayton’s piano playing has the spartan, forceful approach to the dissection of a melody that Thelonious Monk bequeathed to Matthew Shipp. Biolcati’s bass is a thick, binding presence, flowing around the other musicians like molasses but never pinning them in place.
The two saxophonists have very different approaches, which are highlighted well by allowing them to appear separately, except on “Black Hills.” Smith, who’s heard on the album’s first two tracks before returning on numbers six, nine and 10, has a sharp and biting tone, and tends to play higher notes, lingering in a range more commonly associated with the alto than the tenor. Stephens, on the other hand, has a low, buzzy rumble on the horn. His lines (heard on tracks three through five, seven, nine and 11) meander, like he was thinking about something else when an idea worth sharing popped into his head.
The music shifts moods repeatedly, from ballads (“Yerazel,” “Days of Peace”) to swinging if melodically wandering midtempo tunes (“Ghost Dance,” the title track); there are even a pair of solo piano interludes that seem to bracket the album’s final third (“A Dream Revisited” and “End of a Dream”), and everything works well, but it’s hard to figure out what, if any, musical connection to Native Americans exists on Black Elk’s Dream. There are no obvious signifiers—no hand drumming, no chanting, not even the stereotypical rhythm typically deployed to signify “Indians.” This is just a very good album of thoughtful modern jazz that ought to make anyone who hears it go backward to check out the rest of Matt Slocum‘s catalog.
Stream Black Elk’s Dream on Bandcamp: