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“I’m really excited about this one,” guitarist-composer Dave Stryker says of As We Are, a gorgeous new release on his Strikezone imprint. “It’s something different from what I’ve done in the past.”
Given that As We Are is Stryker’s 34th album as a leader since his 1988 debut, First Strike, coming up with a completely fresh concept would seem like a challenge. But Stryker loves venturing into unexplored territory, and his latest offering, which combines jazz with strings in the most organic way possible, certainly qualifies.
Stryker wasn’t interested in cutting songs and layering on string sections afterwards, as is commonplace across multiple genres. “What I wanted to do was to see if we could put the strings right in there with a quartet, as part of the music, and not as sweetening that came in later,” he explains. “I wanted them to be a more integral part of the compositions.”
He’d been sitting on the notion for a while. “It’s been years and years,” he acknowledges. “It’s kind of been a dream project that I had filed away as something I really wanted to do. But then, when the pandemic came along and we were all at home without as many opportunities to play, I started writing music, and I thought, ‘You know what? This is the perfect time to start going forward with this idea.’”
Fortunately, he had the perfect collaborator in mind: pianist and arranger Julian Shore, who he’d first met 20 years before at Litchfield Jazz Camp, where he served as an ensemble instructor.
“He was a good player, a beginner player,” Stryker says of Shore, who was just 14 at the time. “But he kept coming to the workshop, and since I’d do a week a summer there, I would see him each year, and every time I’d hear him, he was getting better. He eventually moved on to the faculty and started making his own records, some of which had string writing on them that I really enjoyed. I just thought he’d be great to work with on this, and I was right.”
He cites several examples from the album. “On ‘Lanes,’ the second cut, he used my themes, but he really expanded upon them, adding sections for drum solos leading into piano solos. It was really creative. He brought in a song of his own, ‘One Thing at a Time,’ that I loved, and for the ballad ‘As We Were,’ I said, ‘I’d really like to have a string quartet intro.’ And when he sent it back, I was just floored. Some of the stuff was so great it almost brought me to tears.”
Now all Stryker needed was a rhythm section equal to the material, and he found one in bassist John Patitucci and drummer Brian Blade, who he’d met in 2010 when they were playing with saxophone legend Wayne Shorter. “I wanted to get the baddest cats there are,” he recalls, “and luckily, they said yes.” So, too, did violinist Sara Caswell, whose solos add immeasurably to a delicate cover of Britsh folk-rock icon Nick Drake’s “River Man” and the multi-faceted set ender, “Soul Friend.”
These performances were captured the old-fashioned way in June 2021, with everyone together in a studio. “That’s what jazz is to me — when you’re interacting and responding with other musicians,” he maintains. “Luckily, we’d all been vaccinated, and we were able to do it in person, and I felt like we really captured some magic.”
And that magic was like none he’d made before.