Trombonist and composer Sam Blakeslee is returning home to his native Columbus next week for a special performance. Blakeslee’s 3-day Ohio extension of the fall release tour for his excellent 2017 debut Selective Coverage (read my review here) will hit town for a concert at the Clintonville Woman’s Club on Thursday, February 15th at 7pm. Cover is $10, or $20 for cover plus a CD, and more details are available here. For this concert, Blakeslee will be joined on the bandstand by Cincinnati guitarist Brandon Coleman and Cleveland area musicians Kip Reed (bass) and Anthony Taddeo (drums/percussion). The tour moves on to Bop Stop in Cleveland on Friday the 16th and BLU Jazz+ in Akron on Saturday the 17th. Blakeslee was kind enough to provide in-depth answers to my questions about the album, his creative process, and his career, so keep reading to learn more.
I really enjoyed Selective Coverage. What was the composing and recording process like? Were there any particular challenges in the production of the album?
Sam Blakeslee (SB): The composing process for the album took place over 2 years, some of them being written in the beginning of 2014. I felt like the first few years after graduating from college were incredibly formative in my development as a composer because I had to start trying to figure out how I was going make sincere musical statements with all the composition fundamentals and technical knowledge that I had acquired in school. Looking back on it, it was more difficult to compose some of the earlier songs on the album because I had more outside influences obscuring my writing process. While it was great information from my mentors, teachers, and favorite recordings, those first years were hard to break away from those voices to really try to find my individual voice as a composer and improviser. Not to say that I’m completely past that, but for the songs that were composed closer to the recording session (like the title track “Selective Coverage”), I think it was a quicker and more organic process to get the final product as opposed to some of the other songs.
As far as challenges to the production of the album, I’m glad to say that there were no huge challenges that came with it. The quintet had done a decent amount of touring through the Midwest, NYC, and some jazz festivals before we went into the studio, so everyone had the music really internalized and there was a huge level of trust between all of the musicians. Because of this, I purposely did not rehearse before the recording session in an attempt to get the most natural and creative representation of the songs. It also created an urgency in the studio that I think transferred over really nicely. I had also had lots of opportunities to play with all the members of the quintet in different ensembles over the years, so I tried my best to organize it in a way that each person would really shine in their own way over the compositions. All of these factors I think really helped create an easy going environment in the studio. I also was incredibly lucky to be able to record it at Systems Two Studios in Brooklyn which is an incredible facility with an amazing recording engineer Rich Lamb, who really captured the sound I was looking for.
You have described these compositions as combining personal storytelling with social commentary. How did these objectives help shape your compositions, especially in the case of the title track?
SB: When I’m composing, it’s incredibly hard for me to write any music without a title. Choosing a title is always the first step of the composition and then everything else gets filled in around that. All of the songs are either a quick snapshot of a significant event in my life or sometimes a lasting sentiment that I was reflecting on. For example, the last track on the album “Settling In” refers to the period of my life when I was certain that I wanted to marry my wife Alex and the contentment that comes with a decision like that. The title track “Selective Coverage” was written in response to the death of Freddie Gray at the hands of the Baltimore Police. After his death riots ensued in Baltimore and were covered by every news station across the whole political spectrum 24 hours a day. The story became more about the riots than why they were rioting. However, at the same time there was a peaceful million-man march that was being organized at the same time and there was absolutely no coverage of it whatsoever, hence the title “Selective Coverage.” As time progressed, it also took on another meaning for me with the ensuing battle for universal health care for all American citizens. I think the tension in the song is pretty apparent, but the main thing that I wanted to portray was the call to organize. In 2018 when we are seeing so much more of the injustice in the world through social media every day, I think we often struggle with how we can contribute to the cause in a meaningful way. I think that composing is the best way that I can contribute to the solution and I hope that the title track not only stirs up emotions about the social issues we are facing as a country, but also creates a tone of determination to try our best to better the situation.
You have a great band lined up for this show and tour. What inspires you most about playing with these musicians?
SB: Where do I start?! In addition to them all being incredible players individually, I share a long history with each of them, so whenever we can bring that energy to the band stand it is a real treat. For the Columbus show I’ll be joined by Brandon Coleman on guitar, Kip Reed on bass, and Anthony Taddeo on drums and percussion. Brandon not only brings amazing sensitivity to the compositions, but is always able to show how multifaceted he is as an improviser in each show. While he is incredibly skilled in the field of straight-ahead jazz guitar, he also has a huge fusion and rock background. The distorted guitar sounds that he uses with acoustic trombone in the front line create one of my favorite blends of instruments! Bassist Kip Reed has been a mainstay on the Cleveland jazz scene for years now after a long stint in NYC. Like Brandon, he has the ability to play any style masterfully with an infectious pocket and groove. While on the record and most of my other shows I had been using acoustic bass, I’ve enjoyed what the electric bass has brought to the music in the last few shows that he has done with the band. Drummer and percussionist Anthony Taddeo I first met in 2013 after his arrival to Cleveland from NYC and we instantly hit it off musically and personally. He moved back with an incredibly strong desire to contribute to the jazz scene in Northeast Ohio, hosting sessions all the time at his house, supporting other people’s shows, and I was lucky to have him on the faculty of the Tri-C Jazz Prep Program where he shared that enthusiasm with the next generation of jazz musicians. As a student of world-renowned percussionist Jamey Haddad, he is equally skilled on both percussion and drumset and that is a new texture that I’m looking forward to exploring on this show in Columbus.
For the Northeast Ohio shows, I’m also very fortunate to have my longtime collaborator with the quintet as well as numerous large ensembles, drummer Dan Pugach who recorded the album. On piano Theron Brown will be playing with the quintet as well. He is one of my oldest friends from college and we’ve racked up an insane amount of hours playing together, and it’s always a pleasure to get to do that again. Theron has also been incredibly influential not only as a jazz musician but by creating the Rubber City Jazz and Blues Festival from scratch in 2016 in Akron and serving on the board of the Knights Arts Foundation which has funded several amazing grants to artists throughout Akron over the last few years.
How has living in NYC been so far?
SB: Living in NYC has been great so far, it’s been a great challenge and I’m looking forward to seeing where it continues to go. There are some parts of it that I’m definitely still acclimating to certain things (mainly the traffic and rent!) after spending my whole life up to this point in Ohio, but the amount of incredible musicians and rich culture that is everywhere is incredibly inspiring. It is such a great feeling to see so many people pursuing their dreams of being a creative musician around you all the time.
What projects are you working on presently?
SB: Right now I have mainly been working on some new music for upcoming tour as well as promoting it, and am hoping to get back into the studio for the next album this summer or fall. One of the hardest things about trying to release material consistently is that there is very little time of being idle in between releases, but I’m happy with the new music that I’ve written and I’m excited to document it! The next big thing is now trying to line up a summer tour to clubs that I did not play at for the CD release tour this fall. I also just finished a new piece named “Slow Growth/New Growth” for string quartet, piano, bass, and drums that I submitted to a competition that I’m still awaiting the results of, but I’m hoping to include that on the next album.
For more on Blakeslee, visit samblakesleemusic.com.