If you haven’t heard an alto-guitar collaboration lately, be sure to check out The Stryker/Slagle Band, a self-titled album and the band’s most recent release, on the independent Khaeon label. The band headed out on tour recently with stops in Washington D.C., Northern Virginia, Pittsburgh, and Baltimore. I caught them on the second night of a two night residency at the James Street Restaurant on Pittsburgh’s North Side.
When a band has an established relationship, it really shows in the music. They develop a repertoire and through that repertoire, a sound all their own. The role of the critic in this process is to convey to a person who was not there, what the music sounded like. How can it be classified? Is it similar to other groups or styles? What is the instrumentation? Are electric effects present? Are rhythm and meter tinkered with, in new and interesting ways? What is the group’s attitude toward music?
These questions all factor into how the group is perceived in the eyes of an audience, and in the minds of my readers. For a jazz critic, or musician for that matter (as I am both), it is futile to describe specific musical elements because the general reader or listener won’t understand any of the jargon. Thus, as my buddy and I were the only ones in the room that really had such well-trained ears for the subtleties of good jazz, it is more appropriate that I discuss how the general audience reacted to the performers.
For much of the first set, the audience at James Street was disinterested at best. A group that lacks name recognition outside the New York jazz circuit, I think it fair to say that most of the audience didn’t know what they were getting into by coming to see the Stryker/Slagle Band. All they knew was that James Street was a place to eat good old Nawleans fare while getting’ a helping of jazz on the side. Strangers to this former steel city (college students), my friend and I were quite irked to see this kind of disrespect for a group that boasted such talent. At one point, leader Dave Stryker put it as nicely as he could to the audience. “We’d like to slow things down right now and play a ballad, but we’re gonna need something from the audience...” After an awkward silence, finally someone got the idea and it seemed like after an hour of music someone had noticed the band was there already. Nonetheless, as the band resumed playing, the back of the room recommenced its very audible chatter.
To my surprise and pleasure, the band took it in stride, and eventually figured they had to turn things up a notch to get this audience in gear. Genuine interest from the crowd finally came on the first set closer, an original Stryker composition rich in funk, soul, and rhythmic intensity. This groove, entitled “Bigfoot,” really woke up the audience and sent the message: “DAMN! These cats can play!
With a funk beat the audience could better relate to, the band really showed their chops off on this one. Rich chords in the guitar coupled with Slagle’s screamin’ altissimo, Moring’s ‘money notes’, and Horner’s impeccable ability to subdivide the bars, showed that this group was worth the audience’s time. Stryker now had the audience in it, clappin’ their hands and shakin’ their heads.
While strongly rooted in bebop and blues, the Stryker/Slagle Band has its own sound, its own look. Both veteran studio players, Stryker and Slagle may be two of the most fun looking guys you’ve ever seen. With Stryker in Hawaiian shirt, altoist Steve Slagle in silken Far-Eastern garb, drummer Tim Horner sporting a baggy comfort look with scruffy beard and long hair, and clean-shaven well kempt Bill Moring holding it down on the bass, the band members might be the oddest combination of guys you’ve ever seen. But no matter what the outside appears to be, these guys have grown to learn what is inside of each other and this mutual understanding is evident to the listener.
When musicians play together for almost 15 years, they develop a keen understanding of each others’ capabilities and tendencies. Stryker and Slagle’s melodic lines effortlessly play off each other, much reminiscent of, say, a Kenny Garrett/John Scofield pairing or Mark Turner/Kurt Rosenwinkel duo. Although Stryker and Slagle do not have the same celebrity status as Scofield and Garrett, their ability to play fluidly through numerous styles and registers, while keeping a constant groove, is remarkable.
Their diverse influences show in their playing. While Stryker could easily go up against Wes Montgomery or Kenny Burrell in a cutting contest, he can also do the B.B. King thing. And while former Mingus Big Band altoist Steve Slagle has that rough free Cannonball Adderley-Eric Kloss edge to his sound, he is also a killer flutist with a penchant for writing and playing Latin jazz.
Stryker/Slagle band is truly a group effort, however. Though the band’s namesakes are the featured soloists, the rhythm section is ably held down by lesser known bassist Bill Moring and virtuosic drummer and special effects man Tim Horner. It is evident that this group has been gigging for a while now.
Emphasizing versatility of styles and influences Horner commented, “Each one of us grows on a daily basis from our other musical experiences. These outside influences help define our melding pot of sounds.”
The night’s tunes indeed ran the gamut of musical styles. From hard-swingin’ blues and rhythm changes to an Indian tabla-inspired tune, “Badal” (named after a tabla-playing friend of the band), the band’s influences were diverse and varied. After opening with the jazz-rock original “Nothing Wrong With It,” followed by a blues, Stryker, much to the delight of his audience, introduced an original entitled “Dark Street,” with the chords of Jimi Hendrix’ “House of the Rising Sun” showing his equal familiarity with rock. The song then took on a highly original rhythmic quality with a frightening ESP between the leaders, who were too exact for comfort on the unison theme. While masterfully trilling on consonant sixths and thirds, Stryker, Horner and Moring showed their sensitivity for dynamics behind Slagle’s bluesy alto solo.
Other notable moments included Slagle noticing the couples and fathers in the audience, and introducing his family life inspired composition “Rhythm Method”. He surely gave the audience a “schooling” in modern post-bop alto playing, while cruising with Coltrane-like fury from the low end of the horn all the way to its upper limits and beyond. At one point, mid-solo, to my great pleasure, he quoted Charlie Parker’s classis “Moose the Mooche” and Stryker immediately echoed his companion’s remark without the slightest hesitation or communication. After an inspired bass solo by Moring with brass-like sax/guitar backgrounds, Stryker and Slagle launched into a collective improvisation that felt like well-defined call and response, while at the same each man being complementary to the other and making instantaneous harmony out of two melodic lines. This kind of spontaneity is only possible from musicians who really know each other. And these guys don’t just know each other – they get underneath each others’ skin.