In jazz recording parlance a "keeper" is a take that is worth saving - one to be listened to over and over again. It's also a most appropriate heading for the fifth outing by the Stryker-Slagle Band, as it well describes not just the date's title track, but each of the other nine pieces that comprise what may well be the best effort yet by this remarkable quartet co-led by guitarist Dave Stryker and saxophonist/flautist Steve Slagle - one on which each of the songs bears repeated hearing. Highly respected for their distinguished careers as sidemen - Stryker for his years with Brother Jack McDuff, Stanley Turrentine, Eliane Elias and Kevin Mahogany, Slagle for tenures with Carla Bley, Ray Barretto, Joe Lovano and the Mingus Big Band - both men are established leaders in their own rights, with large impressive discographies. But it is as coleaders of TSSB that these two are really just beginning to be hailed for the full breadth of their abilities as versatile players and talented composers.
The fifth outing by the Stryker/Slagle Band, Keeper, is the third to partner the pair with the formidable rhythm team of bassist Jay Anderson and drummer Victor Lewis, both back from 2008's critically acclaimed The Scene, which prompted George Kanzler to note in Jazz Times that the two had "achieved, for two decades, a contemporary rarity; a band with a distinct, highly developed sound." Recorded after a successful engagement at New York's Jazz Standard in bassist Anderson's Mountain Rest Studio in upstate New Paltz, away from the distractions and economic pressures of the big city, Keeper captures the band at its very best, both relaxed and cutting edge. The date's nine original compositions - five by Stryker, four from Slagle - plus the group's arrangement of Thelonious Monk's "Ruby My Dear," all showcase each of the band member's individual talents within an aggregate sound in which the whole exceeds the sum of its considerable parts.
Opening with Stryker's title track, "Keeper," the group's distinctively open, airy sound - due to a compositional structure that showcases the beautiful blending of sax and strings, as well as the absence of the chordal weightiness of a piano - is prominently on display. Stryker's soulful vamp sets things up, propelled by the articulate drumming of Lewis, leading into Slagle's voice like alto's soaring reading of the melody. Stryker's solo demonstrates his restrained slow building sense of organization, favoring the guitar's lower and middle registers in the tradition of jazz greats George Benson, Kenny Burrell and Wes Montgomery. Deceptively simple in its sound, the song has an infectiously haunting quality that is sure to have listeners coming back for more.
The topically titled minor blues "Bailout," by Steve Slagle, is a challenging blowing vehicle utilizing slightly dissonant rhythm changes in the bridge that set the band loose on a tour de force outing that shines a spotlight on the composer's thick meaty sound and his penchant for expressing himself with out- of-the-ordinary tonalities. Stryker joins the fray similarly with broad strokes of chords that complement the saxophonist's sound appropriately. As throughout the album, the players keep their improvisations succinct and to the point, never loosing sight of their initial melodic statements or the listeners' interest.
Thelonious Monk's "Ruby My Dear," one of the great pianist/composers most beautiful ballads, is given a stirring reading by the band. Slagle's bittersweet alto tone is most appropriate for the song's melancholy melody. Stryker's voicings highlight the song's idiosyncratic harmonics, while his spacious accompaniment emphasizes the uncluttered atmosphere inherent in many of the composer's masterpieces and his solo showcases his ability to achieve tastefully restrained emotional depth in the tradition of Kenny Burrell.
"Came To Believe," another piece penned by Stryker, evinces a kind of solemn optimism in its melodic line, which is delivered in a warm unison by guitar and saxophone. A song of uncommon subtle beauty, it is one of the date's many high points.
Slagle's "Bryce's Peace" is a moving tribute to his recently departed father, an accomplished painter who contributed the disc's stunning cover. Jay Anderson's melodic bass playing is given a chance to come to the fore on this touching testament to a great artist.
The cleverly titled "Blue State," by Stryker, returns the guitarist to his Nebraska roots as he works out on the traditional form, revealing his affection for the early influences the "three kings" of the blues guitar - Albert, B. B and Freddie King - in the development of his own style.
The mood brightens on Slagle's "Sister," written to commemorate the recent birth of his second daughter. Its simple, almost childlike melody sets the mood for some of the date's best straight ahead soloing by the co-leaders, including some Wes Montgomery-like chording by Stryker. Slagle's spiraling cadenza brings the energetic workout to a fitting close.
Stryker's "Gold Dust," dedicated to young organist Jared Gold, who plays regularly with the guitarist in his organ trio, is a pretty piece that showcases the airy tandem of the composer's nylon string guitar and Slagle's soprano saxophone. The relaxed tempo offers the opportunity for the appealing sound of each of the instruments to shine.
"Convergence" is a soulful Stryker song inspired by McCoy Tyner with a rhythmic melody written to feature Slagle's soprano. Its buoyant line serves as an excellent blowing vehicle for both the straight horn and guitar.
The disc comes to a close with Slagle's "Good 4 U," an AfroCuban flavored piece that gives drummer Victor Lewis, who starts the track off with a typically appealing chorus, an opportunity to display his singularly personal voice. Stryker's fellow Omahan, a composer and leader in his own right, Lewis's ability to play the most complementary rhythmic patterns for the compositions by each of the co-leaders is why he has become such an integral part of this most cohesive unit.
With twenty years experience together and five discs to its credit the Stryker/Slagle Band has proven itself to be one of the most enduring units playing jazz today - one with much to say. The combined talents of its two leaders as composers and improvisers sets it apart from the many pickup groups assembled just to make a gig or a record. The result is rewarding music of depth and insight. The kind astute jazz fans will keep returning to.