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Dave Stryker: Strykin’ Ahead

John Kelman By

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Having just turned sixty this year, it's still quite remarkable that Dave Stryker—a musician who, unfortunately and unfairly, fits into the category of "one of the best guitarists most have never heard"—has released well over thirty albums as a leader/co-leader (including his Stryker/Slagle Band, with saxophonist Steve Slagle, and Latin-informed Trio Mundo) in a little more than a quarter century. This, of course, comes after he cut his teeth, beginning in the mid-'80s and when the guitarist was in his mid-to-late twenties, with saxophonist Stanley Turrentine and Hammond organist Brother Jack McDuff—both of whom gave the already blues and soul-infused guitarist the opportunity to hone his jazz chops and learn in a way that has, sadly, become all-too-rare: being mentored by older musicians who have not only helped younger players become better ones, but have also schooled them in the rigors of the road and the requirements needed to become a good bandleader.

He may not be as common a name as he ought to be, but catching up with Stryker's work on Strykin' Ahead—after, unfortunately, losing touch with the guitarist following Big City (Mel Bay, 2005), Trio Mundo's Rides Again (Zoho, 2004) and the Stryker/Slagle Band's Live at the Jazz Standard (Zoho, 2005)—it's a pleasure to report that Stryker's effortless combination of sophistication and soul remains not just intact, but better than ever.

Strykin' Ahead is the fifth release on the guitarist's own Strikezone imprint, and brings back the same quartet as on Eight Track, Vol. 2 (2016)—Stryker's second album of rock, pop. soul and R&B covers from the '60s and '70s. Organist Jared Gold, a fine leader in his own right, has been Stryker's organist of choice for over a decade, first appearing with the guitarist on 2006's The Chaser (Mel Bay) and appearing on all of his recordings bar one ever since. Drummer McClenty Hunter is newer to Stryker, but has appeared on the guitarist's last four records (including Strykin' Ahead), as well as the Expanded Stryker/Slagle Band's Routes (Clay. Pasternack, 2016). Steve Nelson's first appearance with Stryker only came with Eight Track, Vol. 2, but the 63 year-old vibraphonist—a somewhat irregular leader with a small but appealing discography—has garnered significant international attention for his 15 years spent working with bassist Dave Holland, last heard on the renowned bassist's Pathways (Dare2, 2010).

Together, there's plenty of chemistry and energy on Strykin' Ahead's nine-song setlist that, back to the guitarist's usual modus operandi, combines reworked jazz standards with equally clever and compelling Stryker originals.

At a time when too many guitarists focus on overly complex compositions and playing that may be impressively virtuosic but lacks heart, Stryker remains a refreshing alternative. There's no questioning his instrumental mastery or harmonic sophistication—and there are enough moments on Strykin' Ahead to make both qualities crystal clear. But with the recent passing of John Abercrombie—one of jazz guitar's greatest improvisers, whose undeniable and inimitable technical wizardry and ability to fit into any context were always in service of the song rather than mere superfluous pyrotechnics—Stryker's similar allegiance stands out even more. There's little to connect the two guitarists with respect to approach, tone or even general background, but the one shared quality is that the music—the song—always comes first.

Whether it's the ambling, more down-the-middle swing of "Who Can I Turn To?"—first made famous by Tony Bennett, Dionne Warwick and Dusty Springfield, but quickly becoming a jazz standard through interpretations by Bill Evans, Dexter Gordon and Oscar Peterson—or an imaginative 5/4 reharmonization of Wayne Shorter's often-covered blues, "Footprints," Stryker and his quartet manage to blend innovation with a classic jazz vibe. Stryker's tone is warm, full and round; not as dark, say, as Pat Martino, but more muscular than, for example, Pat Metheny's more processed hollow body sound.

"Footprints" stands, in fact, as one of Strykin' Ahead's highlights: with an impressionist bent that tips its hat well and fully to Shorter's more cerebral nature, it nevertheless grooves surprisingly for an irregularly metered tune, with Stryker's solo an example of restraint and motivic invention. The group stops completely, as Nelson takes over with a solo that's another example of a vibraphonist who has somehow managed to become largely affiliated with the mainstream, and yet is capable of more ethereal abstractions, ultimately supported more delicately by Gold's spare accompaniment and Hunter's equally subdued kit work as his solo ends with a series of fading octaves. Gold takes the final solo, finding a middle ground between Stryker and Nelson; an organist capable of McDuff-like soul but also capable of Larry Young and Dan Wall-infused intricacies and atmospherics.

Elsewhere, Stryker's own "New You" is an example of the quartet turning up the heat. Following a memorable melody that, nevertheless, remains an example of Stryker in more idiosyncratic turf, the guitarist takes a particularly impressive solo that incorporates broad intervallic leaps and, despite remaining in the low-to-middle range of his instrument, builds to a potent climax as Gold and Hunter swing with increasing energy behind him. Nelson's solo begins, once again, in relative extraction but ultimately ratchets up as it leads to one of Gold's most impressive features of the set, swinging hard and demonstrating the unmistakable virtuosity that has turned the forty-something player into one of his generation's preeminent Hammond organists since first emerging in the early 2000s.

Billy Strayhorn's "Passion Flower" is given a light bossa treatment, with Hunter supporting the rest of the group softly with brushes, while the opening "Shadowboxing" is Stryker, the writer, at his knottiest, syncopated best. Stryker's arrangement of Clifford Brown's classic "Joy Spring" retains the ineffable swing of the trumpeter's 1954 version with drummer Max Roach while, despite being taken at almost an identical tempo, feeling somehow smoother and more refined, even as the guitarist uses his solo as a relatively rare—and, for it, all the more effective—demonstration of the fiery chops that he has to possess in order to play as he does...even if he only brings them out occasionally, and at precisely the right moments.

A surprising rework of Charlie Parker's evergreen "Donna Lee" closes the album, with the bebop progenitor's classic yet serpentine melody acting as the foundation for more decidedly modal explorations by Stryker and his group, with Hunter taking a short but powerful solo after Gold's viscerally swinging feature.

With Strykin' Ahead representing Stryker's third consecutive album to feature a guitar-organ-vibes-drums lineup—with Stefon Harris as vibraphonist on the first, 2014 installation of Eight Track before Nelson replaced him for Vol. 2—it would appear that the guitarist has found a particularly comfortable working configuration, both in instrumentation and lineup. There's no denying that guitar-organ-drums trios have been relatively common in the jazz world for decades, and that guitar and vibes have made for a particularly appealing combination since Gary Burton first emerged on country guitarist-turned-jazzer Hank Garland's Jazz Winds from a New Direction ((Columbia, 1961), but with the vibraphonist continuing to explore the blend in his own bands with guitarists ranging from Larry Coryell, Mick Goodrick and Pat Metheny to Kurt Rosenwinkel, Wolfgang Muthspiel and Ralph Towner, amongst others. But few, if any, have explored the conjoining of a guitar-organ trio with vibraphones as Stryker has with his last three releases.

It also looks like the guitarist has found this particular lineup to be an attractive one for less overtly conceptualized albums like Strykin' Ahead, following the completely cover-driven Eight Track sets. And with such an empathic group of players—built slowly over the course of eleven years as first, Gold, then Hunter and, now, Nelson have joined together with the guitarist—Strykin' Ahead hopefully represents a fine and wonderful harbinger of more appealingly toned and throughly contemporary mainstream albums to come.

Track Listing: Shadowboxing; Footprints; New You; Passion Flower ; Strykin' Ahead; Blues Down Deep; Joy Spring; Who Can I Turn To; Donna Lee.

Personnel: Dave Stryker: guitar; Steve Nelson: vibraphone; Jared Gold: organ; McClenty Hunter: drums.

Title: Strykin’ Ahead | Year Released: 2017 | Record Label: Strikezone

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