Sam Blakeslee Quintet: Selective Coverage
Sam Blakeslee

Sam Blakeslee's trombone playing is so warm on his quintet's debut album, there are times when the instrument could be mistaken for a French horn. Eschewing the brassy tone favoured by many a trombonist, the NYC-based Blakeslee (originally from Columbus, Ohio) opts for a sound as cozy as cashmere. Don't presume, however, that Selective Coverage is an unremittingly mellow collection; instead, it's a satisfyingly varied seven-song set that balances uptempo fare with ballad performances.

In a video teaser about the project, pianist Jorn Swart reveals that, because the band members had become so familiar with one another's playing, the entire album was laid down (at Systems Two Studios in Brooklyn) in no more than six or seven hours instead of the two days such a process might normally involve. The kind of simpatico connection Swart's referring to is certainly evident in the playing, and Blakeslee's compositions benefit greatly from the close interactions of all involved, guitarist Brandon Coleman, bassist Cory Todd, and drummer Dan Pugach in addition to the pianist and leader.

Blakeslee has performed at many jazz festivals around the world and studied with Curtis Fuller, Rufus Reid, Steve Lehman, and others, and played with Joe Lovano, Aretha Franklin, and Bernard Purdie. The trombonist actually fronts two outfits, the quintet obviously but also the Sam Blakeslee Large Group, a seventeen-piece contemporary jazz orchestra. It's a detail worth noting because in key ways the quintet feels like a distillation of the bigger group, with each quintet member functioning much as a larger section would in the large outfit. Sharing the front-line with the leader are Swart, a consistently elegant presence throughout, and Coleman, whose guitar contributions make for a pleasing counterpoint to Blakeslee's horn.

Being a wholly instrumental set, Selective Coverage can be enjoyed on purely musical grounds, but there is an extra-musical dimension in play too. Blakeslee, like any citizen sensitive to the myriad social and political issues the US is currently wrestling with, can't help but be affected by what he sees happening around him. By way of illustration, the album's title track alludes to imbalances in both the media's treatment of minorities and the distribution of US health care coverage.

The quintet's smooth delivery is well-accounted for in the elegant opener “Going Back,” a title that suggests an affectionate kinship Blakeslee feels with the tradition of classic jazz. In the first of many solos featured on the album, the leader strikes an excellent balance between lyrical reflection and infectious swing, and his forceful attack is effectively bolstered by the prodding of Pugach and Todd in particular. Here and elsewhere, the members personalize their contributions, their playing marked by freedom but not at the expense of the compositional design. Pulling back from the high-spirited animation of the opener, “Unfortunate Clarity” unfolds at a dirge-like pace, the dreamy ballad tailor-made to induce a kind of reflective entrancement in the listener.

“Gutter” takes flight with an intricate bop-inflected exercise that alternates between fast sequences and improv-styled deconstructions, while the title track sees the band at its most rambunctious, with Pugach adding martial-styled snare playing and Coleman bringing some grit to the material in a raw solo. As strong as Selective Coverage is overall, I do wish the guitarist had been featured a little more, though that's perhaps attributable in part to the many pleasures Coleman's own release, Infinite Loop, provided earlier this year. That caveat notwithstanding, Blakeslee's release presents a thoroughly satisfying set of contemporary quintet jazz sure to appeal to trombone fans though hardly limited in its appeal to a single sub-group of listeners.

November 2017