Steve Slagle and Bill O’Connell

The Power of Two

For the first duo recording of his nearly four-decade career, veteran alto saxophonist Steve Slagle teamed up with pianist Bill O’Connell, a longtime friend and collaborator. Melding jazz and Latin music has been O’Connell’s passion for many years, as expressed through various-sized ensembles of which Slagle has been a mainstay. Both men are accomplished composers and arrangers, Slagle most notably with the Mingus Big Band and Joe Lovano’s Nonet (with whom he plays lead alto), and O’Connell with Mongo Santamaria and Dave Valentin.  Both men’s résumés are lengthy and impressive.

The Power of Two presents a strong pairing from the start. The first cut, “Good News” is an ultra-contemporary, 12-bar blues with a sinewy, camouflaged melody. Rather than laying down basic changes, O’Connell’s two-fisted approach covers the extreme ranges and dynamics of the keyboard. He has the chops and know-how to present numerous stylistic alternatives to an age-old song form.

Slagle is an altoist who wears his heart on his sleeve. As an impassioned improviser with total control of his horn, his altissmo (extended upper range) is as full and penetrating as his tessitura (normal range). And he seldom plays a melody without interjecting soulful interpretation, his solos full of nuance that behooves his colorful sound.

The set contains seven palatable originals. “KD JR.,” Slagle’s loosely swinging, heartfelt tribute to his close friend, the late pianist Kenny Drew Jr., is a standout. The tune sounds familiar and comforting, replete with O’Connell singing a unison “Talkin’ ‘bout Kenny Drew” on the outchorus.

Slagle plays flute on two jazz standards — an up-tempo reading of Bill Evans’ “Peri’s Scope,” and Dave Brubeck’s “The Duke.” Few saxophonists other than Joe Farrell have played the flute with such a beautiful tone and concept. 

The Power of Two more than lives up to the promise of its title. —James Rozzi

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