Dave Slonaker’s “Convergency”

Slonaker cover

SLONAKER: Convergency.* Uncommonly Ground.+ Duelity.+ A Gathering Circle.* A Curve in the Road.* Inner Voices.+ Sometimes a Notion.* Vanishing Point.+ And Now the News.+ GORDON-WARREN: I Had the Craziest Dream+ / Dave Slonaker Big Band: Wayne Bergeron, *Dan Fornero, +Ryan Deweese, Clay Jenkins, Ron Stout, tpt; Alex Iles, Charlie Morillas, Ido Meshulah, tb; Bill Reichenbach, bs-tb/tuba; Bob Sheppard, a-sax/s-sax/fl; Brian Scanlon, a-sax/s-sax/fl/cl; Rob Lockart, Tom Luer, t-sax/cl; *Adam Schroeder, +Jay Mason, bar-sax/bs-cl; Larry Koonse, gtr; Ed Czach, pno; Edwin Livingston, bs; Peter Erskine, dm; Brian Kilgore, perc / Origin 82851

This is apparently jazz composer-arranger Dave Slonaker’s second CD, his first having come out in 2013 when I was still writing reviews for a major magazine but was completely unaware of that disc’s release. Listening to the album on YouTube, however, I found it nice big band jazz but not nearly as original or innovative as the music on this new release.

Trying to find actual information on Slonaker’s background and musical education is like hunting for snarks. There just ain’t any, at least online. If you go to his home page, all you’ll learn is that his first CD, Intrada, was nominated for a Grammy, which means absolutely nothing to me. I don’t believe in Santa Claus, Bigfoot or Grammys. They’re all artificial constructs, the difference being that Grammys are chosen by inner politics plus how much money the artist’s label can give them as a bribe. (Well, maybe Santa Claus was created for the same reason.) I did, however, learn that Slonaker has scored music for a number of movies I’ve not seen or heard of, like Dr. Strange in the Multiverse of Madness, A Million Ways to Die in the West and Oz the Great and Powerful in addition to a couple I have heard of but never saw like Spider Man, Air Force One and The Mummy Returns. All of which, I’m sure, made him good money, but don’t have much bearing on his jazz writing. In the liner notes for this CD, however, I did learn that Slonaker began his career as a jazz trombonist.

On this album, as opposed to on Intrada, Slonaker plays around with counterpoint and contrasting voices in a way that I found intriguing, yet at the same time he creates melodic lines that are attractive and at times memorable. What a radical concept! In terms of instrumental voicing, Slonaker is fairly conventional; you won’t find anything here as original as the big band writing of Charles Mingus, Toshiko Akiyoshi or Willem Brueker. It’s pretty much by-the-book scoring, but as I say, Slonaker throws in some very intriguing twists on the same old same old to make his music on this disc sound fresh and interesting.

And all of his soloists are very good. Since he’s involved in the Hollywood score scene, I’m assuming that this band is comprised of first-call jazz pros from the musicians’ union; certainly, even I recognized the names of saxist Bob Sheppard, trumpeter Wayne Bergeron and bass trombonist/tuba player Bill Reichenbach, who is two years older than I am and whose name I recognized from the Akiyoshi-Tabackin Big Band of the early 1970s. Thus I can only assume that all the other names I see here are equally skilled.

This expertise helps Slonaker put his complex charts over with a minimum of effort. Every little twist and turn of his compositions are handled so easily that they sound as if they could play them in their sleep. (For all I know, they probably can!) The twisty-turny melodic line of Uncommonly Ground, for instance, which alternates between a straight 4 and 6/8, comes out as smooth as toothpaste from a tube.

Yet as I continued to listen, I felt that the ultra-professionalism of this band was perhaps just a tad too polished. Without a certain amount of grit in their sound, the playing sounds a little glib but for some of the solos, like Tom Leuer’s superb tenor sax spot on Uncommonly Ground. It was just this sort of slickness that eventually turned me away from Supersax back in the 1970s. In case you’ve forgotten or don’t know what Supersax was, it was a similar band of top jazz pros that played full sax section arrangements of Charlie Parker solos. At first listening, it was thrilling to hear Bird’s conceptions pour out with such richness and drive, but after a while you missed the grit that Bird himself put into his solos. It was part of his aesthetic, and to my mind part of the aesthetic of jazz.

Still, I have to admit that when you listen to the trumpet section coast through their chorus on Duelity, it gives you a momentary thrill, and here again one is caught up in the sax solo, this time by Bob Sheppard on alto. You gotta love these sax players; they keep the flame burning even when the rest of the band is just on simmer. At times, however, the mood marches the piece, as in the excellent Inner Voices where Slonaker managed to come up with a composition that bas its own unusual construction, yet at the same time works as an excellent underlying cushion for the explorative trumpet solo of Ron Stout. On this track, too, the trumpet section actually wakes up when they play their tutti outburst, sounding quite excited to find their groove.

Also, all those intricate passages that enliven each piece on this album are great fun to listen to. I especially loved the way the bass line moves in step with the ensemble on Sometimes a Notion, and bassist Ed Livingston’s later solo on this is a quiet gem. Slonaker’s writing on Vanishing Point is simply extraordinary; for me, this was the finest composition, and realized performance, on the entire album—in part because its quiet demeanor called for exactly the kind of qualities this orchestra possesses. Slonaker makes effective use here of the flute, clarinets and muted trumpets behind the exotic soprano sax solo of Bob Sheppard. It’s just that, overall, the Slonaker band just misses the excitement I heard in Gordon Goodwin’s Big Phat Band back in the early 2000s. Goodwin’s band was also comprised of top Hollywood-area jazz pros, and they were just a recording band at first before the popularity of his records sent them out on the road. But somehow, the Goodwin band just had a little more spunk to their playing, even when just in the studio.

Of course, you reaction may be different from mine, thus I suggest that you give Slonaker a listen. If I were entitled to a suggestion, I’d recommend that Slonaker toss in a few exotic instruments to give his ensemble more tonal variety, perhaps an oboe, bassoon and cello. And perhaps urge the players to give from the gut when they play.

—© 2022 Lynn René Bayley

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Read my book, From Baroque to Bop and Beyond: An extended and detailed guide to the intersection of classical music and jazz


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