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Evensong
Steve Slagle

Since first hooking up in 1986, saxophonist Steve Slagle and guitarist Dave Stryker have appeared together on numerous recordings, whether as The Stryker / Slagle Band or under their individual names, and this CD provides us with yet more of their special brand of spirited and incisive jazz in the hard bop or modern mainstream realm. The title, Evensong, and the cover art from a beautiful painting by Bulgarian artist Ivan Pazlamatchev, might lead one to believe that this music will be some kind of esoteric, spiritually refined departure, but that is certainly not the case. The bop-infused Slagle and the blues-tinged Stryker meld their considerable talents to the betterment of both as they navigate a compelling program that includes tributes to Charles Mingus, Jim Hall, John Coltrane, and Ellington/Strayhorn. Completing Slagle's quartet are past participant Ed Howard on bass, playing better than ever, and drummer McClenty Hunter, making an auspicious debut with the group.

Slagle's "Mingus In Us" is also dedicated to the late bassist Dennis Irwin, and with Mingus quotes thrown in it has Mingus "written" all over it. (Slagle says that Mingus sang "just the first bar" to him in a dream.) The leader's alto solo is both biting and immensely inviting, swooping and swaying boppishly throughout. Stryker's response is characteristically bluesy and full-bodied, while McClenty's drumming is potently perceptive. "Blues Four" is Slagle's oddly constructed blues in B Flat with a first chord in E Flat, and it's likable immediately thanks to Howard's rhythmic intro and the twirling theme that follows. Slagle's testifying solo is propelled by Howard's resilient bass lines and Hunter's prodding constructions. Stryker's improv has a Wes Montgomery flair in its sound and chording, while Howard delivers a strongly voiced statement of his own. A series of engaging Slagle/Stryker contrapuntal dialogues are answered by a zestful Hunter, and the reprise drives home the fact that the extended melodic line in sum is reminiscent of some of Ornette Coleman's best blues-based tunes.

Stryker's "Supermoon" has a warmly oscillating near-Brazilian feel to it, and the blending of alto and guitar is perfectly realized on the theme and in the composer's understated comping for Slagle's darting and at times churning solo. Stryker's flight is intricately and logically woven, and Hunter once again produces a tangy, flexible pulse beneath it all. Slagle dedicates "Quiet Folks" to "the great lyrical guitarist, Jim Hall," and Stryker here adopts a mellow tone remindful of that master's. On soprano, Slagle plays the indeed lyrical melody with a subdued keening edge, before the guitarist creates a solo that is both sensitive and nuanced in its shadings. Slagle's exposition lets loose a bit more, a mixture of arpeggiated phrases and hurtling elongations. Howard's spot has a solemn but captivating bent, and is succeeded by Slagle's insinuating reprise along with Hunter's responsive backing. The guitarist's stabbing minor blues, "Shadowboxing," is revealed by Slagle's soprano, racing and soaring through the appealing changes. Stryker matches him improvisationally before the two hook up in a challenging give and take. Hunter deftly sums it up in his pertinent and energetic workout prior to a brisk recap.

"Alive" has an off-kilter, twisting theme that is also alluring, and composer Slagle's solo, like the theme itself, seems to possess a dose of Charles Lloyd's throaty tonality and playfulness. Stryker's presentation finds him at his best, multi-layered with richly voiced blues connotations. Hunter's drum turn conveys the melody with a Max Roach-like skillfulness and panache. Slagle wrote "Equal Nox" on Coltrane's birthday, as well as the autumn equinox (9-23). It has a contemplative intro by Slagle, and a soulfully emphatic theme that Stryker investigates in a mood swinging solo that alternates graceful chords and rapid-fire streams, among many intriguing facets. Slagle's alto keeps a generally intense pace, his extended phrases, dissonant asides, legato slides, and swirling clusters coalescing artfully. Howard contributes another lucidly assured improv preceding Slagle's welcome reprise.

The bop-oriented melody line of Slagle's "B Like Me" is played in alto/guitar unison after a free-floating prelude. As Slagle rambles through his whirlwind solo, Mingus' sensibility comes to mind in its adventurousness and refreshing use of the chord changes, an approach that made him such a key member of the Charles Mingus Big Band for so many years. Stryker's invention, in contrast, is more centrally focused but just as absorbing. The twosome's counterpoint diversion leading up to the theme's return is infectious and rewarding. The lovely, but somewhat neglected Ellington/Strayhorn ballad, "Star-Crossed Lovers," closed the recording session, with Slagle and Stryker interpreting it in a duet format. Slagle's bittersweet, personal reading of the melody is elevated by the guitarist's softly spun chords. The altoist's varied tonal inflections, and his supple miniature coda also help to make this a memorable track.

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Scott Albin