Modern small-group jazz that dances with a taste of Ornette and a bounce from Blakey.
Guitarist Dave Styker and saxophonist Steve Slagle are two perfect examples of superb jazz talent that is easy to overlook. They have played together for 20 years, but they have also played all over and around the scene -- with organ groups, with the Mingus Big Band, with singers, with Brazilian bands, you name it. They both have adaptable modern sounds that blend well, but they are not without their own individual styles. But in the sea of jazz recordings and club dates each year -- and absent any imprimatur from a major label or any ink/airtime from a major media outlet -- Slagle and Stryker are veiled figures: terrific players in a music choked with them.
So it must have made sense to join forces a few years ago in the Stryker/Slagle Band. After all, if you're going to labor in semi-obscurity, it's probably best to have company. Latest Outlook is the quartet's third disc (each with a different rhythm team), and it deserves to break out into the open. This is fresh, intelligent modern jazz that captures the sweet spot of the art -- engaging composition, adventurous improvisation, and inspiring group interaction. Neither avant-garde nor strictly mainstream, this recording could inspire any jazz fan to think twice about letting any more Stryker or Slagle product go ignored.
Both players are, at core, hard boppers who came of age in a post-Ornette world. As a result, Slagle plays -- usually alto, but some soprano too -- with a vocalized looseness that still follows the chord changes most of the time. Stryker knows his Kenny Burrell and Wes Montgomery, sure, but is as likely to sound like his jazz contemporaries John Scofield or Pat Metheny. And on this date, the bassist is the versatile Jay Anderson and the drummer is Billy Hart -- a modern master. In addition, the group is supplemented on two tracks by tenor player Joe Lovano, a contemporary of the leaders who -- as a Blue Note artist -- is a guest "star". He sounds completely natural with the group.
From the start, this date suggests the kind of controlled freedom that is special to the best "post-bop" jazz. Because Stryker usually plays the melody in tandem with Slagle, the head arrangements on "Knew Hold" and "Latest Outlook" are more reminiscent of the Ornette Coleman Quartet -- without a chording instrument -- than of a standard jazz group. This open feeling is enhanced by Hart's fully colored drumming, with cymbals excitedly filling the sonic space. Even when Slagle is soloing on alto, Stryker does not overplay the chords, choosing instead to sketch the harmonies impressionistically with a ghost of delay in his sound. "Knew Hold" has the jolting bounce and jabbing repetition of early Ornette, while "Outlook" is more knotted as a melody -- a chromatic pattern that squiggles and them leaves space for Hart's precise feeling on the ride cymbal and snare drum. The solos are all rooted in the blues as well as the melody, with an approximate tonality that leaves room for grit as well as pure chops. Stryker's solo sounds like a true conversation with Anderson and Hart.
The tunes featuring Lovano reflect, perhaps, Slagle's tenure in the tenor player's bop-based nonet. "Bird Flew" is based on Charlie Parker's "Confirmation" chord changes, and it ties the players down to a greater extent -- or gives them something more concrete to wander away from. Lovano plays with a somewhat choked and raspy tone that puts you in the mind of Rollins -- and with as much harmonic daring too. Because Hart is not afraid to mix it up rhythmically, slipping into bars of double-time as quickly as he slips back again, the track never seems formulaically boppish. "Dear Mr. Hicks" is a dedication to the late pianist John Hicks, and it is a rhapsodic and unkempt ballad performance, with Hart refusing to settle into straight time for several minutes as Lovano and Slagle play the melody in ragged counterpoint. The band sounds bigger than a quintet, with Stryker coloring orchestrally until the tempo comes in like a big plane finally landing.
The least representative tune is surely "Hartland", a self-conscious change of pace. With Slagle on soprano and Stryker on strummy acoustic guitar, the band goes into a pop groove beneath a melody articulated in unison by saxophone and bass. Nevertheless, the song takes off more than pleasantly, with the piquant folk melody giving Hart a nice foil for his accents and temperature-raising fills. It's only fair to note that Pat Metheny so utterly owns this kind of thing that Stryker cannot help but evoke him on his fluid solo. But Slagle's snakey, vocalized turn makes clear that this is a groove that is adapting to a different band -- and nicely.
"Self-Portrait in Three Colors" is Mingus's memorable theme and one that Slagle has played many times in the Mingus Big Band. This version is fine, but the lush sound of Mingus's orchestration isn't served well by the subtle guitar voicings of the harmonies. Still, it would be churlish to critique the band for taking on a Mingus challenge, and it's on a song like this that the band sounds most like the Joe Henderson group that recorded So Near, So Far, the wonderful 1993 Miles Davis tribute that also featured Billy Hart. If anything, the Stryker/Slagle Band is more integrated and pulsing.
"In Just Time" is a cooker that cleverly alludes to the standard "Just in Time". Even better is "Turning Point", a waltz that gives the guitarist the most room on the set to play more contemporary blues lines that sting and burn. In other words, there is not a weak track in this set. Five solid musicians with searching hearts simply don't leave room on the record for clichés or vapid interludes.
But that's so often the case in jazz today -- there are scores of wonderful players and a rich history through which they can discover new strains of music that draw from the tradition. Latest Outlook is a perfect example of the great music that could come and go on a small label if buyers don't stop for a good listen. This one deserves it. Sit your ears down and take a load off.