In the midst of a recording session with his New York big band, Columbus-born, Brooklyn-based trombonist, composer and arranger Sam Blakeslee noticed an interesting dynamic among the players.
“On the first take everyone in the band was like, ‘Who are these people? Why are they playing like this, because it just sounds so different? Why haven’t I heard stuff like this before?’” Blakeslee’s answer: “Because it’s Cleveland.”
“These people,” saxophonists Chris Coles and Nathan-Paul Davis, and the cream of Northeast Ohio’s jazz community, will join Blakeslee on the stage of BLU Jazz+ this weekend for a homecoming so packed with music that it will take two nights to play it all.
It didn’t take long for Blakeslee to merge into the fast lane of life as a New York freelance musician. Sessions, subbing gigs, rehearsals and more are all part of that life. As if all this weren’t enough, Blakeslee now commutes to Hartford for his new role as artist teacher of trombone in the Jackie McLean Institute of Jazz in the Hartt School of Music.
Add two new records in the works with his big band—release date TBA—the busy body, who was in town a year ago to promote his CD of the same name, an event I covered here, is busier than ever.
That was part of the plan. “When I first moved to New York, there was this internal desire to recreate myself, to create new things that I hadn’t done before,” Blakeslee said by phone last week. “That was a necessary phase.”
Yet, the experience of living and working in New York’s fast-paced scene also gave Blakeslee the perspective to recognize and refine his Ohio-rooted artistic essence.
“I learned a lot, particularly about orchestration and form, but I realized that with all that new influence, I also kind of lost a part of myself,” he said. “One of the reasons why I felt an urge, post-2020, to document some music with Ohio musicians on the Wistful Thinking project was that it encapsulates a sound that is really different from the sound in New York.”
”Why haven’t I heard stuff like this before?”
As a colleague, section-mate and sometimes bandleader, Blakeslee has nothing but admiration for the musicianship of New York players. “It’s an amazing scene,” he said, citing the depth of talent available to him. The players there are, he said, “extremely in tune/ It takes very little rehearsal to play incredibly complex music. So as a big band leader, I can call 20 people [for one part] and they’re all going to be amazing.”
Yet, for all their skill, New York players lack an indefinable something that he always finds on his return visits to Ohio. “Ohio to me is like a no-frills environment,” Blakeslee said. It completely cuts to the absolute core of musicianship and emotionality, and I think that there’s more of an emphasis on actually attempting to–or hoping to–connect with the audience.”
The band will be a mixture of younger and older veterans—saxophonists Johnny Cochran, Brad Wagner and Bobby Selvaggio joining Coles and Davis, trumpeter Jack Schantz and drummer Dustin May—with some of the rising stars on the local scene, trumpeters Ephraim Miller and Garrett Folger, pianist Jennifer James and guitarist Jonah Ferguson. “Since I left there’s this whole new generation of musicians that are coming up in Northeast, Ohio,” Blakeslee said. “So, I’m really excited.”
He’s excited, too, for the opportunity to open his growing book of compositions, both from his Ohio and New York years. A highlight will be a series of excerpts from the “Flowers for Rubber City” suite, a 2022 commission from the University of Akron.
When he returns to New York, Blakeslee will be greeted with a full calendar of engagements to finish the year strong. He has performances with Jihye Lee’s orchestra and with dancers in the New York Afro-Bop Alliance Orchestra’s “Nutcracker Reimagined” at Merkin Hall. As a leader, Blakeslee will direct his big band Nov. 19 at bassist Matthew Garrison’s newly relocated Shapeshifter Lab in Brooklyn.
“It’s an interesting balance,” Blakeslee said about his two-state musical life. “I’d say I’m just trying to hold on to my Ohio roots with the benefits of the New York scene too.”
Sam Blakeslee Large Group, Friday, Oct, 20 and Saturday, Oct. 21, 8 p.m., at BLU Jazz+, 47 E. Market St., Akron. $25 each night, available here.
NOTE: This article was written by a real human being. No artificial intelligence or generative language models were used in its creation.
Red beans and ricely yours,