The Long Middle
Release date: July 30, 2021
Label: Outside in Music
The Long Middle is the debut album from stalwart New York-based trombonist and composer Sam Blakeslee and his dynamic ensemble Wistful Thinking. Featuring an introspective journey of pastoral melodies and beautifully crafted compositions and arrangements, this genre-defying release comes to life in an intimate chamber-jazz setting, akin to the various small bands of Kenny Wheeler and Bob Brookmeyer. Sam Blakeslee & Wistful Thinking features the trombonist alongside saxophonist Chris Coles, who also contributes various electronic effects and pedals, guitarist Brandon Coleman and bassist Matt Wiles. The Long Middle represents a pivotal period for the New York-based trombonist; one that is marked by the pervading feelings of isolation and distance, both in the geographic and social sense that have been so universally felt over the past year.
Originally from Columbus, Ohio, award-winning trombonist Sam Blakeslee has made a significant name for himself in New York City, where he has lived since 2017. Over the past four years, Blakeslee has developed a solid reputation as a “first call” player, notably with several high-profile large ensemble groups including the Dan Pugach Nonet, Manuel Valera’s New Cuban Express Big Band, New Alchemy Jazz Orchestra, Terraza Big Band, Remy Le Boeuf’s Assembly of Shadows, Big Heart Machine, Emilio Solla’s Tango Jazz Orchestra, and the New York Afro-Bop Alliance Big Band, among others. He has shared the stage with a plethora of top-notch jazz icons ranging from Joe Lovano and Sean Jones to Ingrid Jensen and Dominick Farinacci, and regularly performed at top tier venues around the city. While he loved New York City and all it had to offer, he couldn’t shake the feeling that something was missing. “The transience and overwhelming frequency of New York City started to create a bittersweet sentiment for my friends and musical collaborators in my native Ohio,” he shared, adding that he was drawn to both the grounded nature of his hometown, and it’s predictability. He particularly missed the “beautiful, community-oriented fashion” he had grown up with.
Yearning for a sense of community and musical kinship, Blakeslee began making regular trips back to Ohio to perform and record with friends and musicians there. However, during those visits, he would immediately long for the unbridled energy and unparalleled musical diversity of New York. In other words, he found himself somewhere in the middle.
During one of these visits in 2019, he and fellow Ohio-native musicians Brandon Coleman and Matt Wiles found themselves in discussion about the joys of playing with a percussion-less ensemble. “We realized it was something we did rarely, but wanted to do more. We immediately thought of ways that it could change the direction of the music we were working on to give us unique options while improvising, and also could be a vehicle to fulfill the unique challenges that type of ensemble poses.” It struck Blakeslee that this pared down instrumentation might compliment the new music he was composing as of late, inspired by his wistful wish to be in two places at once. Blakeslee also added alto saxophonist Chris Coles into the mix; a brilliant musician whose spirit and energy was an obvious natural fit.
Two days before the newly named Wistful Thinking project was set to embark on their first tour, the world shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Blakeslee was crushed. “At that point, I had spent over two years trying to get established in New York and purposefully not pursuing my own projects to try to absorb all of the other musical offerings that were present there. Then when the moment came to finally step out as a leader, everything became so uncertain. Like all other musicians at that time, I saw my whole calendar full of both creative projects and my livelihood get washed away in a matter of weeks.” The isolation from the pandemic intensified the already existing sense of yearning for the group, and added an extra layer of emotion to the project. Finally, after much delay, the band came together to record over three days in Cincinnati last August, providing a much-needed catharsis for all parties. The resulting work is a striking and meditative eight track collection comprised of Blakeslee originals and a retooling of the Appalachian folk song “Shady Grove”.
Highlights include the title track, “The Long Middle”, which was the last piece composed for this record and reflects the slow passage of time that unfolded during the isolation of the pandemic, and “Ashokan”, which was inspired by the Ashokan Reservoir in the Catskill Mountains. “During his period, the reservoir and the Catskills in general have become an integral part of balancing my art and life and that balance is what I tried to represent in the composition. I have also been fascinated with the duality in this particular location – that something so serene and still can provide water and lifeblood to such a chaotic place like NYC,” Blakeslee describes. Another poignant feature is “Bygones are Bygones”, which symbolizes the concept of “water under the bridge”. Particularly striking, this track demonstrates the deep trust between the members with free improvisation. Recorded in only one take, to Blakeslee this tune best displays the unique timbral palette of the ensemble.
Grammy nominated trombonist and composer Alan Ferber praised Blakeslee and The Long Middle. He shared: “In a year fraught with anxiety and isolation, there are some musicians who have found powerful opportunities for musical and spiritual growth. As evidenced by his stunning new release, Sam Blakeslee is clearly one of them. This new body of work reflects a
trombonist who thinks and plays like a composer, patiently waiting for each new idea to be heard before delivering and developing. As I listened to this album, I remembered something that Bob Brookmeyer used to say, “The line is everything.” I can promise that if you follow the line that permeates Sam’s new album, you will be richly rewarded with a story both unique and beautiful, and most importantly, honest.”