With its intrinsic blend of odd meters, angular layers and recurring melodic motifs, Black Elk Speaks is tailor-made for fans of jazz composition. On his first two discs as a leader, Portraits (2010) and After the Storm (2011), drummer Matt Slocum proved himself a formidable composer. This latest work takes that skill to another level. It is an album-length attempt to not only capture some of the ineffable spirit of Black Elk, the legendary Native American medicine man, but to evoke the tragedy of his tribe’s subjugation, and the spectral beauty of the landscape over which he and his Ogalala Lakota people lived.
If the scope of his ambition sounds too grandiloquent, Slocum executes it with sophisticated but spare understatement. The spiritualism and Native American elements are unmistakably present in “Ghost Dance,” for example, but the surge and the pulse — not least from Slocum’s simmering beats — steer it away from cultural tourism. It’s crucial that he is working with, and writing for, top-flight sidemen who have been with him since the start of his tenure as a leader. Pianist Gerald Clayton is an emotional linchpin, providing the right blend of soul and elegance with points of emphasis that unlock Slocum’s intentions — not only on his short solo numbers, “Prelude” and “A Dream Revisited,” but during the pensive opener, “Pine Ridge,” and portions of “Black Elk Speaks,” which has a stately melodicism reminiscent of McCoy Tyner’s work in the mid-to-late ’70s. Walter Smith III and Dayna Stephens take turns in the tenor saxophone chair except for “Black Hills,” when their joint appearance helps Slocum enrich the rocky grays, sandy beiges and cloud-shrouded blue skies of the Dakotas. Bassist Massimo Biolcati rounds out the ensemble.
Slocum’s command of the material is most evident in its absence, when he relaxes his grip. The lone cover, Pat Metheny’s “Is This America?” (written in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina), has a tone-poem simplicity compared to the rest of the material, and when Slocum lightens the mood on “Days of Peace,” the change is startling. His drumming deserves special mention. A stylist steeped in the musical beats of Roy Haynes and Philly Joe Jones, Slocum adds the snare rolls and overall martial musicality of Ed Blackwell here, and delivers highlights in his interaction with Smith III on “A Blues” and in the closing section of “Black Hills.”
Black Elk’s Dream is no walk in the park. But those comfortable with the effort required to glean expansive vistas in deft, delicate detail will enjoy the outing.