10

Dave's Eight Track Mind

John Ephland By

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Dave Stryker
Crystal Run and Luna Stage
Middletown, NY and West Orange, NJ
November 2, 2014

It was a tale of two cities. Or two bands, to be more specific. Or two variations on a theme, to come that much closer to describing what went down on this first Sunday in November in the towns of Middletown, New York, and West Orange, New Jersey.

It was a tale of one band following the other, the first being the unrecorded yet longstanding group known as the Softwinds. Nominally a quartet with Ron Crosta on vibes, pianist Paul Duffy, bassist Lou Pappas and Tom Cabrera on drums (saxophonist Mike Anotnelli not present), this Hudson Valley gig at Middletown's Holiday Inn Crystal Run was a perfect complement to a diner's easygoing, jazz-loving late-afternoon palette. Accomplished veteran musicians all, their set was strewn with covers of mid-century standards like Cole Porter's "Love For Sale," Ellington's "I'm Beginning to See The Light" along with more contemporary fare like Oliver Nelson's "Stolen Moments" and Freddie Hubbard's "Little Sunflower." Cabrera's wife, singer Julie Lyons added to the luster on selected tunes. Songs of love, the music, despite a lack of surprises, was breezy, swinging. All about jazz.

But the reason you're reading this review isn't because of them, as listenable as the Softwinds were.

This tale of two, so to speak, emerged courtesy of the evening's fare bubbling up down the road apiece in an early evening set. It was the Dave Stryker Trio at the Luna Stage in West Orange. "Eight Track: A Celebration of Classic Pop Tunes From the 70's Reimagined" was a mouth-and mind-full billing for another reinvention of the classic combo of guitar, organ and drums. "Eight Track" was part of an annual four-concert Music in the Moonlight Jazz Series at the Luna Stage, a lively neighborhood cultural center that usually books theater productions. Having relocated to West Orange from Montclair in 2011, jazz at the Luna has become a musical mainstay, if only four times a year. And, based on this evening's turnout in the cozy, 99- seat room, people really dig having their full.

Stryker's CD Eight Track (Strikezone Records) served as the road map for the concert. A tongue-on-cheek reference to the popular yet ill-fated 1970s technology that preceded digital recording, Eight Track has become a critically acclaimed CD both with the press and jazz radio (2014's most played CD on WBGO), no doubt lending to guitarist Stryker's cred as a top vote-getter in DownBeat's recent Readers Poll.

The show at the Luna was all about the '70s, with some '60s material thrown in for good measure. Apart from some satisfyingly greasy blues in a couple of spots, it was all Eight Track. And the contrast with "Love For Sale" couldn't have been more dramatic, to use a stage term. Gone were the gestures of World War II-era classics, songs that jazz musicians sing and perform night after night, year in year out. In its stead were songs that took a Wes Montgomery approach (minus the orchestration), one developed late in that late-guitarist's career with albums covering then-contemporary material like "California Dreaming" (think the Mamas and the Papas) and "A Day In The Life" (the Beatles). Pop went the jazz, so to speak. Granted (and unlike Montgomery or then- colleague/guitarist George Benson during the same period), Stryker's trio couldn't help but be looking back, even as it revved up a similar songbook, fast- forwarding selected tunes into the 21st century. And, in case you were wondering, retro it wasn't.

A guitarist who plays an engaging (electric) hollow-body Gibson ES with right thumb and freewheeling fingers to match, Stryker dazzled not so much with his virtuosity as with his feel and textured approach to the instrument. And, as if to emphasize the group-over-star concept, Stryker settled in off to the right of the stage as listeners also took in the seamless simpatico offered up courtesy of organist Pat Bianchi (center stage) and drummer McClenty Hunter.

Leaving the mid-century chestnuts behind, Stryker rammed home a deliciously scrambled bunch of numbers that many may remember as another golden-hits era, Stryker's delivery and mindset taking that popular jazz approach to current standards exemplified by Montgomery to another level, and without the advantage of orchestral support and the novel touches of an arranger like Oliver Nelson. Instead, in a curious way, listeners familiar with the CD (aware of certain personnel changes) and/or those lucky enough to have been at the Luna that night were treated to a what-might- have-been. Indeed, when Montgomery had his trio with organist Melvin Rhyne and drummer Paul Parker in the late '50s, you could hear the emergence of a new sound. And yet, like the band at the Holiday Inn, they were organized (no pun intended) around a similar repertoire mindset, namely, something period-specific. The difference? Both involved moods, but "Eight Track," given the advantage of hindsight, was a tad more ironic, laced with a funky attitude through and through. The music somehow seemed capable of moving beyond the lounge or wedding reception. Where it went from there was and is the listener's ongoing choice.

With Stryker, the title of his CD gave everything away. And with this live performance—which also featured a fair amount of lighthearted and well-received banter from the leader—the gloves were off as they covered material by Curtis Mayfield ("Pusherman/Superfly"), Jimmy Webb ("Wichita Lineman"), even something sappy like the Association's "Never My Love," each of the covers consistent with but a tad wilder than the delectable renditions proffered on Eight Track, not to mention their original incarnations.

And, with the top-drawer complements of Bianchi and Hunter, one could come away thinking these three might just be one of today's best working trios in straight-ahead jazz. One only needed to look askance at the smiling crowd to get a feel for what was infiltrating the room, as there seemed to be only bobbing heads and swaying torsos wiggling row after row. This little concert, truth be told, seemed to be emerging as a well-kept secret on a Sunday night, in a modest section of town in upstate New Jersey.

The lingering salvo of "Eight Track" at the Luna was a spirited spin toward set's end through Clifton Davis' "Never Can Say Goodbye," a popular song associated with the Jackson 5. As with Stryker and company's other renditions, long gone were the sing- songy lilts to a pop confection that will never die, replaced with a blazing injection of up- tempo jazz groove, jazz swing, with all three members playing their instruments like this was their last gig in West Orange (Stryker's hometown), if not the world. Stryker's facility at this velocity, his note choices, his impeccably selective use of chords was refreshing, sounding like a blast of previously unused energy just now being released.

As for Bianchi and Hunter, their contributions suggested, again, a signaling toward a group dynamic that reminded one of what can happen when everyone is playing in service to the song, the organist's ease and grace a reminder of the glue he provided center stage both in mind as well as spirit while the drummer threatened to steal the show outright with his seductive ride cymbalisms and his snap-to-it lighter-than-air stickwork. Hunter, who's soon to join Kenny Garrett on tour, was like Stryker's secret weapon, his drumming a marvel of rhythmic invention and groove suddenly unleashed on this unsuspecting crowd of music lovers.

A tale of two mindsets, two bands, both of them in love with the standard rep, however defined. One band swept up in a bygone era few may now remember, the other bringing a recent past to the present in a fun-loving and butt-shaking kind of way.

Photo Credit: Jim Eigo
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