If you has happened to follow this site long enough, you know the drill: The Stryker/Slagle Band puts out a new record, I listen to said new record, then I write about how great it is. Keeper, the newest by the Stryker/Slagle Band that goes on sale tomorrow, offers me no reasons to break that trend.
We last visited this combo in the fall of '08. That's when their last sizzling release, The Scene, came out. For that disc, the band retreated upstate to bassist Jay Anderson's own studio in New Paltz, NY and crafted a record of soulful, post-bop jazz that was hard to find any fault with. They also brought in the great Joe Lovano and his huge tenor sax sound to interact with Steve Slagle's alto for some of the cuts. For Keeper, the guys once again retreated to Anderson's recording oasis to put down the tracks for another record, but this time, Slagle is the only horn player and the band moved from the Zoho label over to Panorama Records.
With Lovano not in the picture this time, the phenomenal interplay between Slagle and guitarist Dave Stryker becomes the sole major focal point. Combined with some nicely formulated melodies on originals tendered nearly equally from Stryker and Slalgle (plus one Monk classic, Ruby, My Dear") and the program is just more of the same soulful sweetness we've been getting from this crew for several albums in a row, now. No, the fun hadn't stopped yet.
Starting with Stryker's burning, grooving vamp that sets up the title song Keeper," Slagle and Stryker together formulated an engaging thematic line before the altoist peels off into just-right phrasing, followed by one of Stryker's trademark precisely modulated solos. Anderson and drummer Victor Lewis propulse the whole thing by acting as an air-tight rhythm section. This cooly-rendered vibe sets the tone for the rest of the record. Slagle's composition Bailout" is a deeper bop number, and here the saxophonist blows expressions that are unmistakably in the fine be-bop tradition but they're also unmistakably his own style. Stryker does a fine solo in the Kenny Burrell way, but the highlight comes when both are trading licks. They build each other up to a higher intensity but both also maintain their cool.
The rest of the program continues along in the same style, but with each track revealing their own identity. Stryker's Came To Believe" is set up superbly with Lewis' rollicking rhythm and seen through by Stryker's single note vocabulary that stays light on its feet. Bryce's Peace" is Slagle's affecting tribute to his recently deceased father, and leaves Anderson to provide the high point with a very poetic solo. Blue State" is a walk over to Stryker's prominent blues side, while Slagle's snappy Sister" has a bright but sophisticated melody. Slagle switches over to soprano sax for the Brazilian influenced Gold Dust" (where Stryker plays acoustic guitar) and the hard driving Convergence." The Afro-Cuban styled Good 4 U" ends the production with Slagle showing a great ability to play around the polyrhythms so authoritatively put down by Lewis.
I always thought that the most remarkable thing about the Stryker/Slagle Band has been their ability to keep their music sound fresh and crisp despite playing the much-traversed territory of mainstream jazz. Because these guys play with such enthusiasm, agility and soul, there's nothing ever prosaic about them. That makes Keeper just what the title implies, a keeper.