Every time Jazz Guitarist Dave Stryker comes out with a new CD it’s like visiting with an old friend that you haven’t seen in a while. The sound and feel are comforting and familiar but there’s always something new to catch up on. Baker’s Circle, Dave’s 35th album* as a leader is no exception as he builds upon the tonal colors of his usual trio – Jared Gold on Organ and McClenty Hunter on drums – with the addition of tenor saxophonist wunderkind Walter Smith III and percussionist Mayra Casales (featured on three tracks). These two players bring the “oomph” factor up a notch as they communicate their own unique voices to the musical revelry!
“Tough”, a Stryker original, opens up the CD with a foot tapper that features a tight unison of guitar and sax on the head before Stryker, Smith and Gold get to work on the changes. Stryker’s soloing is deep in the pocket and brings to mind after-hours blowing ala Grant Green, Bobby Broom and Kenny Burrell. This is his element and he makes no apologies for it! To coin a phrase, his chops are “down-home and legit!” Years spent playing with the likes of Brother Jack McDuff and Stanley Turrentine up in Harlem and on the world stage will do that to a guy or gal!
Smith’s solo comes up next and the stylistic contrast is immediate and effectual. His playing caters to a more contemporary approach and is reminiscent – but not in a clone-like fashion – of Michael Brecker and the late, great Bob Berg. His sharp lines are strong and rather pointed at times, but nicely preserve the melodic underpinnings of the harmony throughout this CD. This too can be said of Jared Gold whose improvisational facility – at times – seems to hang just slightly over the edge of tonal/atonal melodics, adding an enjoyable dissimilarity to Stryker’s more hard-bop and bluesy leanings.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Hunter’s envious ability to keep the group together while showcasing his contagious swing, groove, control, and at times, thunderous propulsion. He plays THE SONG rather than just keep time and his soloing over a repeated musical figure, like on “Tough”, is nothing short of bombastic. Yet he can also be quite sensitive as prominently displayed on the Cole Porter classic “Everything I Love” where the brushes gently move the tune forward. Likewise, “Love Dance” gets the same treatment and his responsive approach to Casales’s percussive rhythmic punctuations – when featured – speaks highly of his commitment to the song rather than his ego, as can be said about her performance as well.
And speaking of Mayra Casales, she is in fine form on “El Camino”, “Baker’s Circle” and Marvin Gaye’s classic “Inner City Blues” where her infectious beats blend in nicely alongside Hunter and the rest of the group, adding just the right amount of Latin/Cuban heat that has made her a first call for many years.
The seven other tunes that don’t feature Casales still cook though as Stryker and the boys either tear it up or bring it down. Gold’s “Rush Hour” is a fine example of the guys stepping up their game as they blaze through the tune like they were on the Autobahn! Smith, Gold and Stryker shred through the changes nicely without being left in Hunter’s dust as he dexterously pushes the band hard and fast. His own solo is relatively short and sweet but showcases a considerable unyielding command of his kit. He definitely brings the thunder!
“Inner City Blues”, “El Camino”, “Trouble (no.2)”, “Baker’s Circle” and “Dreamsong” also provide a perfect backdrop for each player’s skillful improvisational proficiency along with their ability to back each other’s play as they either lay-out or comp accordingly (check out Stryker’s accompaniment behind Gold’s solo on “Trouble (no.2)” for a taste). This however is not surprising given their CV’s and experience. I would expect no less.
The softer side of the group appears to be just as practised as “Everything I Love” and “Love Dance” reveals a sensitivity and thoughtfulness that both tunes deserve. Smith sits “Love Dance” out as Stryker brings out the octaves and soft vibe in this Lins, Paranzetta and Williams song that caters more to Kenny Burrell’s version than George Benson’s but is uniformly his own. In fact, this tune along with Gaye’s funky “Inner City Blues” and the uber-silky “Superstar” – written by Leon Russell and Bonnie and Delaney but made famous by The Carpenters – could easily find themselves on any one of Stryker’s Eight Track franchise volumes. It is no wonder that – as of this writing – Baker’s Circle has been sitting pretty at #2 for the past three weeks on the JazzWeek Radio Chart! Nicely done Dave! 🙂
Now, as stated earlier, this CD is like an old friend. It is warm, it is inviting, and it makes you feel good during and after the listening is done. The analogy doesn’t end there though as Stryker dedicates the CD to his old friends David Baker and Vic Juris – who have sadly passed on – while also paying homage to his onetime boss and friend Stanley Turrentine – who Dave performed and recorded with for ten years – by recording Turrentine’s popular “Trouble (no.2)”** which closes the CD nicely. If this doesn’t get your foot tapping, nothing will! Smith shines on this one and given the history this tune brings forth, he digs deep into his Soul/R&B bag as a mark of respect to the past while sticking closely to his own voice. In fact, the whole group captures that ‘64 Hustlin’ vibe superbly. A fantastic tune to finish off a great set of music indeed!
So if you like your music soulful, funky and expressive with great players and finger-snappin’ tunes, then pick up a copy of Baker’s Circle, grab a beverage of choice and reach out to an old friend.
*That’s not to mention the numerous dates he’s co-led or played on as a sideman.
**Written by Lloyd Price and Harold Logan.
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