Sunday, June 14, 2020

Buddy movies in sound: Stryker eases into Mintzer arrangements with WDR Big Band

Dave Stryker and Bob Mintzer are seasoned bandstand colleagues.
Among the well-established indications that jazz has long been reliably exported and given a native hue of resolution abroad is the WDR Big Band.

WDR stands for "Westdeutsche Rundfunk" (West German Radio) and the last syllable of the full name suggests to Americans that such an ensemble can take care of business. ("Funk" is a highly charged word, as Beethoven fans know from the line "Freude, schöne Götterfunken" in the last movement of the Ninth Symphony. "Joy, spark of the gods," indeed!)

The band brings it off expertly in "Blue Soul" (Strikezone Records) which has its shared of funkiness as it showcases guitarist Dave Stryker, guesting with the band at the invitation of director and tenor saxophonist Bob Mintzer.  Mintzer's arrangements are skillfully negotiated, and the master of the revels picks up his horn now and then, too, while yielding most of the solo space to Stryker and, variously, to the band members.

True to Stryker's recent series of "Eight Track" releases spotlighting his distinctive interpretations of pop material, "Blue Soul" pays a lot of attention to others' hits (versions commonly known as "covers," a term that has little value in jazz, as much of what a jazzman plays covers songs introduced by, or most associated with, other musicians).

The set begins smartly with Marvin Gaye's "Trouble Man," with Stryker's solo clearly profiled and the band's presence significant but never obtrusive. That's pretty much the procedure throughout the set. The WDR ensemble gets plenty to do, but the writing isn't showy or assertive. Mintzer knows he's writing for a band that can play anything and doesn't need to be ostentatious.

A treat for Indianapolis jazz fans is the inclusion of Billy Test on piano and organ, especially prominent on the latter instrument in "Trouble Man," "What's Going On," and Stryker's "Blues Strut." Test was a finalist in the 2018-19 American Pianists Association's competition, and made a strong impression, as he does here.

Stryker's tone normally has a matte finish, which lends a subtle color palette to Prince's "When Doves Cry."  He can bring a glow to it for expressive purposes, suiting the atmosphere of 'Wichita Lineman." That number also features one of the best solos by a WDR member, trombonist Andy Hunter, who glides among registers with surprisingly relaxed virtuosity. Flavorful solo turns by alto saxophonists Karolina Strassmayer and Johann Hörlen contribute much to "What's Going On" and "When Doves Cry," respectively.

Tempo choices always seem fitting, and the support from the drum chair by Hans Dekker makes such a clean-featured swinger as "Shadowboxing" especially exciting. His cagey fills between phrases evolve into a deft solo. "Stan's Shuffle," a closer that pairs Stryker and Mintzer in the spotlight, poises the saxophonist's lanky, virile style, slightly rough-edged, against the sparkling side of the guitarist's sound. The rapport is solid, and the bar-walking pace is just what's called for to round out an attractive release.

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