I hate to call Dave Stryker an “under-recognized” guitarist. I can say that this particular album might escape the attention it deserves. True, it’s brightly polished and perfectly pitched, and for sheer, unadulterated, high-toned fun, you won’t find a current jazz recording to top it. But even though it remains among my favorites of 2012, a lot of jazz recordings show up every year, and the demise of jazz radio makes it hard for listeners to stay on top of them all. So yes, Blue To The Bone IV may fly under the radar for too many listeners. But I have this problem slapping that “under-recognized” label on Stryker himself. It always carries a whiff of whiny defensiveness – and nothing about Stryker’s virile, swaggery music suggests that sort of excuse-making. And then there’s the matter of his discography: most artists “deserving wider recognition” don’t have 24 albums out under their own name. Yet despite his large and loyal following – for his own projects as well as for the longstanding quartet he co-leads with alto man Steve Slagle – and despite the highly regarded instructional method that has made him a well-known presence among guitarists-in- training, the fact remains: Dave Stryker still doesn’t get all the attention he actually deserves. He’s just that good.
Stryker has a boatload of speedy technique, as you might expect. But rather than make that an end unto itself, he employs it in the service of solos that already bristle with narrative strength, and a cogency born of wisdom and experience – of knowing what to leave out as well as what to include. His improvisations would rise above the pack even if he owned only half the chops he displays. When he proceeds to infuse these improvisations with heat, light, and the various other forms of radiant energy made possible by his sterling technique – well, that hardly seems fair. And then there’s the whole matter of the blues. Stryker has always revealed a strong shade of blue in his music; it helped make him an invaluable member of organist Jack McDuff’s band in the mid-80s and, after that, of saxist Stanley Turrentine’s groups well into the 90s.
“I think with all the gigs I’ve done, I have my own thing to say right now. I’m not ‘just’ a blues player. And I’m certainly no Albert King or anything like that,” he says, referencing one of the accepted blues-guitar gods. “But the blues – that’s deep down in there. I’m a jazz player, but the blues was part of my DNA even before I moved to New York,” in 1980. (This is not a comment often heard from a musician who grew up in the white-bread-and-mayo environs of Omaha, Nebraska.)
As you can guess from the title, Stryker has found a semi-regular showcase for this facet of his music. Blue To The Bone IV follows three previous chapters in a series that began in 1996, marked by the presence of kick-ass horn sections, Hammond B-3 organ, and tight arrangements , arrangements that fulfill Stryker’s original desire – to hybridize the sound of the Jazz Messengers with the horn sections used by B.B. King. But those first Blue To The Bone albums came in a comparable rush — three discs in a span of six years — and IV comes after a gap of more than a decade.
So why the delay?
“Well, this has always been a project dear to my heart, in that I love the chance to have that horn section kicking in behind me. There’s nothing like it. But it being a special project, I only get to do it when certain concert opportunities come up, or at festivals that can afford to bring in a group this size. I kept writing some arrangements [over the last ten years], but the band just got put on hold. And also, I’ve been concentrating more on the two other groups I lead – my organ trio with Jared Gold, and my thing with Slagle.
“What’s really cool about this album,” he continues, “is that it combines my regular organ trio with the horns. It’s the best of both worlds.” That assessment could as easily apply to the way Stryker blends the spheres of jazz and blues. The evidence hits you in the face 15 minutes into the album: by then, you’ve heard his electric deep-dish twang at his down-and-dirtiest (Blues Strut), as well his ability to fold this the blues into a pure jazz solo of enormous vitality and impact and filled with note-y conviviality (Workin’).
The guitarist wrote both compositions, and they also illustrate the range his music traverses on this disc. If Stryker enjoys the experience of “having that horn section kick in,” I can only imagine the experience of having this horn section kick in. Freddie Hendrix dazzles on trumpet, with searing high notes and splashy solos; still in his early 30s, he has distinguished himself in the Count Basie Orchestra as well as bands led by Christian McBride, Oliver Lake, and George Benson. SteepleChase Records veteran Vincent Gardner (he appears on eight previous albums, five under his own name) realizes the trombone’s full power and glory in the ensembles as well as in his solo turns. And saxist Slagle, Stryker’s musical soulmate for the better part of three decades, pours unvarnished soul into his buff, streetwise tone. The “Big Foot” in another Stryker tune is the enormous sound of baritone saxist Gary Smulyan, the modern dean of that instrument, who has replaced Bob Parsons in the horn section. “I figure if you have to go out to g says. “But Bob’s imprint is still on the records, and he still does some of the arranging”; in fact, he had a hand in shaping four of the tunes on this album. As for the rhythm section (a.k.a. the Stryker Organ Trio), savvy listeners know Jared Gold as one of the most energetic and captivating B-3 players on the scene today; and young McClenty Hunter admirably fills the sizable shoes of the late Tony Reedus, the trio’s original drummer.
All together, they kick this album into a higher gear from the first note. But the music’s heart remains the jazz-and-blues, bourbon-and- beer blend of Dave Stryker’s sound and soul. If you’ve heard it even once before, you’ll recognize it immediately. Neil Tesser