Guitarist Dave Stryker Breaks New Ground, Recording with String Quartet for ‘As We Are’ (ALBUM REVIEW)

The ever-prolific and explorative guitarist Dave Stryker has again found a new configuration for his work. Last year he fronted the WDR BIG Band, and he is beginning 2022 with his long-realized dream of working with a string quartet, aside a “dream” quartet of his own as he is joined by pianist Julian Shore, bassist John Patitucci, and drummer Brian Blade. This is Stryker’s 34th release as a leader and marks the first time not just with a string quartet but the first with the acclaimed drum-bass tandem so long associated with Wayne Shorter. Also of note is that the string quartet is highlighted by violinist Sara Caswell, who solos on two tracks. Joining Caswell are violinist Monica K. Davis, Benni von Gutzeit, and cellist Marika Hughes

This beautiful music owes all arrangements to Shore who claims to have acquired an innate feel for the work of Patitucci and Blade, as he wraps gorgeous harmonies around Stryker’s compositions. We learn through the liners that Shore was a student of The Wayne Shorter Quartet pianist, Danilo Perez, while at Berklee and had spent time with the unit which was in resident at the Panama Jazz Festival in 2010. Thus, the connection to Patitucci and Blade.

Stryker has carved out his reputation as a soul-blues jazz guitarist both on his own projects and his prior sideman work for the likes of Stanley Turrentine, Jack McDuff, and others. In that sense, it is surprising to hear him in this context but his remarkable clear tone, his fluid lines, and natural flair for melody shine through as well it ever has while he also is clearly at ease handling the lush harmonies and new forms. 

The album begins with a brief overture penned by Stryker and Shore that encapsulates the project’s themes. It leads into “Lanes,” featuring Stryker’s briskly rendered lines that resonate powerfully with the colorful textures of the strings before Blade shines in his own solo following Stryker. The album’s only cover, Nick Drake’s “River Man” follows and is suitably dark befitting the writer. The mysterious ethereal beginning belongs mostly to Shore and the string quartet before Stryker steps in with the melody, eventually yielding to a blistering Caswell solo. When Stryker rejoins, his lyrical statements pull the tune from its mired sadness to one rich in both melody and sweep. Stryker’s fondness for Brazilian forms appears first in “Hope,” one of two features for Patitucci’s lyrically stunning plucking that also has a dancing spot from Shore, who further takes “Suadade” into even deeper Northeastern Brazil motifs. 

Shore’s connections to Shorter’s music reveal themselves most directly in the contrafact “One Thing At A Time,” which dates to the ‘60s. We learn through the liners that Shore knows Hancock’s piano lines encyclopedically, having transcribed a hundred or so for Hancock’s online MasterClass. While this music may be much more difficult than that we typically associate with Stryker who has displayed an affinity for pop music in recent years, the guitarist clearly navigates it with aplomb as do the major soloists, Patitucci and Shore. 

In an album full of soothing, gorgeous sounds, Stryker’s reflective ballad, “As We Were,” the title track, which features the guitarist’s emotive well-chosen notes offset by Patitucci’s warm bass work, shines as its best example. “Dreams Are Real” does not feature any one soloist apart from the leader, and, in fact, the beauty of the piece is the unison playing between Shore and the strings in the interlude following Stryker’s solo. Lest one think, however, that Stryker has abandoned his core bluesy sound, the group ends with just that in ‘Soul Friend,” highlighted by Caswell’s searing solo, Stryker’s own vintage, comfortable blues attack, several statements of the theme, punctuated by Patitucci’s expressive bass. 

In 2021, we heard saxophonists Jim Snidero and Cory Weeks record with strings as well as Terence Blanchard recording with the Turtle Island String Quartet. Yet, somehow a guitarist backed by a string quartet on the surface didn’t seem nearly as promising. Stryker and this elite cast of musicians dispel any doubts. This is superlatively gorgeous by any measure. 

Photo by Chris Drukker

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