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Dave Stryker: Soulful Sound

R.J. DeLuke By

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They hear your feel before they hear your notes. So if you have a good feel, and it hits people in their heart, then you're doing the right thing. —Dave Stryker
Guitarist Dave Stryker carries a soulful sound that took root in his early years in Nebraska, where he played the blues before finding his way into the world of Grant Green, Wes Montgomery and Pat Martino. More was added to the recipe when, after moving to New York City, he earned his way into the real-time universe of gritty veterans like Jack McDuff and Stanley Turrentine, musicians who played directly to people with heart, feeling and purpose. His tenure with Turrentine lasted over a decade in total.

"I started in '1986," he says. "I was there '86 to '96 and then I left for a little while. Then I came back with him the last year he was alive."

By then it was 2000. "He started to call me and I would do some New York gigs. Then I did a little tour of the west coast. We came back and were doing the Blue Note. Everything was going great. He sounded great." The saxophonist bid goodnight to his cohorts. The next afternoon in the hotel he suffered a heart attack. "We all showed up at the gig Sunday night and there was no Stanley."

Stryker's fond experiences with the renowned saxman were the basis of his recent tribute CD, Messin' With Mr. T, a hard-hitting gem that calls on some of the best saxophonists in the business to interpret music associated with Turrentine—a different one on each of the ten tunes. The music is joyous and ballsy, successfully conjuring up Turrentine's vibe. It includes "'La Place Street," the last song Turrentine played on his last gig and also the name of the street he grew up on in Pittsburgh. The CD rose to the top of the jazz charts in 2015.

If that weren't enough—and it never is for Stryker, who marked his 26th recording as a leader with Mr. T—the guitarist revisited his longstanding association with saxophonist Steve Slagle this year with the new CD Routes, done with an expanded band that has three horns melding with the quartet. That recording, by necessary intent, explores different territory, moving from steady swing, to more aggressive and angular territory ("Nothin' Wrong With It"), to serene ("Great Plains") to funky groove ("Lickety Split Lounge"). All of that music is penned by Slagle or Stryker, save for one Charles Mingus tune ("Self-Portrait in Three Colors").

To have diverse projects is not new for Stryker, whose chops can handle anything from soul to more outlandish music inspired by the likes of John Coltrane. Not only does he have the physical means to dazzle his instrument, but he has a big, warm sound that further entices the listener. He plays with feeling, not just dexterity.

"I think that's what we like about jazz is the improvisation of it and composing on the spot," says Stryker. "The longer you do it and the better you get, you're making up new melodies, not just rehashing licks. To play the music, you have to learn the language, but once you learn the language, you get past that to the next level, where you're making melodies. It's exciting."

"Also having a good feel so when people hear you" is a key, he says. "The first thing they hear is your sound and they hear your feel before they hear your notes. So if you have a good feel, and it hits people in their heart, then you're doing the right thing. That's what music should do: make you feel good."

That's what Stryker accomplishes whether with his organ trio, his partnership with Slagle or appearing with others. It's a lesson that was re-enforced working with the likes of McDuff and Turrentine. Both influences pop up. Even his association with Slagle has its beginning in McDuff's band. The CD title Routes, has the double meaning of describing the routes the two players have taken and how those paths have crossed, and also the roots of their music, which have similarities.

Stryker went to New York in 1980 and his first big-time job was with the organist. "McDuff had told me if I ever get to New York, to look him up. So I went up there and auditioned with him. Steve Slagle was in the band, so there's a lot of paths crossing there. When I was with McDuff, we played a steady gig up in Harlem at a place called Dude's Lounge. A lot of guys would come in there. Jimmy Smith and George Benson, Lou Donaldson and Stanley Turrentine. That's where I first met Stanley. When his guitarist couldn't make it, I went. Stanley offered me the gig."

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