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Dave Stryker: Big City

These two albums feature a nearly identical lineup, with one highly consequential difference. Big City captures Stryker in the studio with pianist David Kikoski, bassist Ed Howard and drummer Victor Lewis. Live at the Jazz Standard is a more persuasive outing by Stryker’s co-led quartet with altoist Steve Slagle (and the same rhythm section). While Kikoski’s presence on Big City is a delight, ultimately the piano-guitar combo doesn’t serve the leader as well. Pair Stryker with Slagle, however, and a fuller picture emerges. The guitarist opens up harmonically, gets a rounder, more satisfying tone and locks in with the alto sax from note one. Big City is a respectable studio encounter, but Live at the Jazz Standard is a field report from one of today’s most inspired two-man teams.

Stryker fills out Big City with four originals and three standards. But the standards, too, reveal glimpses of the guitarist’s originality, particularly in the vamps he adds to “Every Time We Say Goodbye” and “If Ever I Would Leave You.” There’s also a Trane-ish, 3/4 rendition of “It Was a Very Good Year” and a memorable “Cherokee” variation called “Biddy Fleet.”

But the tighter, more economical sound of Live at the Jazz Standard is quickly apparent, with three Slagle originals leading up to a beautiful “I Loves You Porgy.” Stryker and Slagle’s unison playing, always highly attuned, is especially strong on “Passing Giant,” a closing tribute to Elvin Jones (Slagle’s brief nod to “Epistrophy” couldn’t be hipper). “The Great Divide” and “The Chaser,” both by Stryker, pose invigorating technical challenges. But the real treasure of the set-and the only soprano sax feature-is Slagle’s “Baba Marta,” a feast of melody in a Caribbean 6/4.

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