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Stryker/Slagle Band at Goat Cafe

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Stryker/Slagle Band
The Goat Café
South Orange, NJ
June 23, 2006

Jazz guitarist Dave Stryker and alto saxophonist Steve Slagle have been playing together for 20 years. That's longer than most marriages, and possibly better than most because of the extraordinary telepathy that drives their collaborations.

On June 23 at The Goat Café in South Orange, NJ, an enthusiastic audience sprinkled with musicians and industry people was treated to a last-minute warmup for the Stryker/ Slagle Band's recording session a few days after this gig. Veteran drummer Billy Hart and bassist Jay Anderson filled out the group in the two bouncy, breathless, and at times bluesy sets.

The quartet is actually a very democratic unit, with Stryker calling what few signals there were, and the small stage easily containing four egos. Hart actually played on Stryker's first recording as a leader 20 years ago and about two dozen CDs ago. Hart has around 200 album credits, so one might think he has nothing left to prove, but on this Friday night, not only did he provide a steady backbone, but he stepped away from his reserve a couple of times and unleashed some tasty solos.

Mellow Tones and Fast Fingers

In the first selection, "Birdcall, named after Charlie "Bird Parker, it was appropriate for a fellow saxophonist to hold forth alone for a few minutes. When leader Stryker came in, it was with only a few notes on his warm, mellow-toned Gibson running a little 15-inch Polytone amp. He was followed by the fast-fingered Anderson, who all evening, kept his solos on the old acoustic bass quite diverting—this despite all the unkind lore about boring bassists. Hart respectfully accompanied Anderson with a brassy rainfall of cymbals and well-placed accents.

On "Turning Point, Slagle, who seems able to play in any style, showed the influence of '70s Charles Lloyd in a reedy singsong andante. In the background, but not too far back, Hart continually used his whole kit, but managed to keep a signature bright halo of splash (on his splash cymbal) throughout, even when slyly changing rhythms. Stryker, whether playing a rudimentary accompaniment or picking complex chords, looked as tortured as the most emotive rock star, but the sounds weren't tortured. At The Goat, where every seat is a good one, the customary spatial wall separating listeners and performers is absent, so visitors are pulled right into a player's feelings. That's part of what makes The Goat the "official come-as-you-are living room of South Orange. (The other part is the dozens of huge and well-crafted coffees, steaming or iced, priced so that five bucks will serve to keep you awake all weekend.)

A Charles Mingus tune, "Self Portrait in Three Colors, was introduced by Stryker with a sonic crawl of introspective musings. Anderson picked up on this touching solo in the same vein, echoing the guitar's tune even with his instrument's limited range. Slagle capped this piece, as he did most, with a delicate butterfly-effect coda, to end the first set.

Articulation and Speed

Hart's startingly loud downbeat wakened the crowd to signal the start of the second set and a Stryker tune, "In Just Time. Just as suddenly, Slagle and Stryker played in strict upbeat unison without a glance at each other. Hart cleaned up with an amazing solo that was a model of articulation and speed. Up-and-coming drummers 50 years younger who tend to muddy their beats could take a lesson from Hart's clean yet emotive execution. Did "Just in Time swing? It rocked! And it got the whistles and applause it deserved.

The set continued with additonal tunes that will be found on the early-2007 CD. One was a Brazilian/Asian fusion bit with the rhythm duo carrying the weight. Another featured Stryker on hollow-body and Slagle on soprano in an Iberian mode. "Hicks," a tribute to the late pianist John Hicks, was an update of '70s French movie music with a bit of Pink Panther thrown in. The walking-bass beat went up-tempo with Slagle blowing his hardest and his partner taking it all in and grinning like a proud papa. With Slagle reposing, Stryker noodled along, apparently in a private moment, while Hart marched to a different beat in his own private moment, giving the Goatees a privileged glimpse into the players' unrehearsed meanderings.

Jazz in New York's 'Sixth Borough'

From Manhattan, you're 25 to 40 minutes by car or train from this bastion of big-city jazz talent and suburban convenience and cool. Get thee to the Goat and the other venues along the South Orange/West Orange/Montclair jazz axis: Cecil's, Trumpets, Tierney's and smaller spots. You may be in for an exceptional performance like the Stryker/Slagle outing. Or you may merely be entertained. And compared with NYC prices, you'll have change left over to buy a CD or two.

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