Ask jazz composer and drummer Matt Slocum to name his primary influences and he doesn't hesitate. "For writing? I would say Billy Strayhorn, Duke Ellington, Wayne Shorter, Tom Harrell, Dave Holland, Alan Pasqua, as well as Debussy and Ravel. For drummers, I guess my all-time big three would be Roy Haynes, Elvin Jones and Max Roach. Lately it's been Bill Stewart, Eric Harland, Matt Wilson, Kendrick Scott, Marcus Gilmore..."
He rattled off this personal honor roll less than 10 minutes after being awakened by a prearranged 11 a.m. phone call at his home in Paterson, N.J., an easy commute to his many gigs in the jazz mecca of New York City.
Slocum's enthusiastic immersion in the moment, coupled with his scholarly attention to detail, paints a classic portrait of the quickening artist as a young man. Now 28, the native of New Richmond, Wis., on the eastern fringe of the Twin Cities, will enjoy a prodigal homecoming of sorts when he showcases the material from his debut CD, "Portraits," at the Artists' Quarter in St. Paul this weekend.
Joining him in a distinctive trio will be bassist Joe Sanders -- an old cohort from the University of Southern California -- and Walter Smith III, a tenor saxophonist of growing repute. "Walter's lines have shapes I don't hear in anyone else's playing, and he's so soulful," Slocum enthused. "You can hear his influences, but he has his own, nonderivative sound."
Much the same can be said of "Portraits." There are sophisticated harmonies and simple melodies twisted ever so slightly to tug on the memory. "Shadows" prances atmospherically like a Wayne Shorter tune, and, like many Dave Holland songs, manages the trick of sounding busy and spacious at once.
The mood ranges from the simmering sax workout of "Homage" to the gently skewed ballad "For Alin" -- named for Slocum's longtime girlfriend -- to the upward glide of "Seven Stars," a saxophone conversation featuring Jaleel Shaw on alto and Dayna Stephens on tenor.
The only one of the nine tracks that Slocum didn't compose is a gorgeous, woozy rendition of the Ellington/Strayhorn ballad "Daydream," bisected by his inspired solo on the mallets. With reviews like the rave at Allaboutjazz.com -- "Slocum steps out of the box as the full package" -- "Portraits," released on tiny Chandra Records, should enhance his burgeoning reputation among the jazz cognoscenti.
Slocum's superb regular trio in New York includes heraldic pianist Gerald Clayton, another USC classmate who plays on the disc. Slocum cherishes his experience at the school, where one of his teachers was Peter Erskine, drummer for everyone from Stan Kenton to Weather Report, and an in-demand session player for the likes of Diana Krall, Linda Ronstadt and Queen Latifah.
"There are two kinds of teachers in jazz," said Slocum. "Those who teach you to play like them and those who teach you to play like yourself. Peter was always in the latter category. There was a time where I was transcribing everything Roy Haynes played on [the 1968 Chick Corea album] 'Now He Sings, Now He Sobs.' Peter said, 'How about if you play in the spirit of that, but play like you instead?'
"Another thing I liked about him is that time-keeping was number one with him: He wanted to do without the unnecessary notes."
Before Erskine, Slocum's first drumming mentor was local stalwart Phil Hey, who in three years helped transform a high school sophomore playing in a New Richmond, Wis., ska-punk band into a jazz lover headed for Southern Cal.
"He really gave me a foundation for jazz by hipping me to different recordings," Slocum said. "Some of the stuff he showed me I wasn't ready for until I got to USC, but was very helpful when I remembered it then, especially his stuff on brushes, where Phil is so good."
After graduating, Slocum spent three years in Pasadena. "I didn't really feel I was ready to go to New York. I had work in L.A. where I could play and teach, and I just wanted to explore and practice a little more before trying to move to the next level."
By 2007 he felt ready, found the place in Paterson and has established enough of a niche to support himself in the clubs of New York.
With no pianist in his trio this weekend, some of the songs on "Portrait," including "Shadows," will have to be sacrificed. No matter: He's completed 30 or so original compositions, including some tailor-made for saxophonist Smith -- just the way Ellington and Strayhorn did it.
"I'm doing exactly what I want to do," Slocum said, fully awake now. "And I've got a lot of friends and family that will be really fun to see when I get to St. Paul."