Dave Stryker – Eight Track Christmas – [TrackList follows] – Strikezone 8819, 50:54 [11/1/19] ****:
(Dave Stryker – guitar, arranger, producer; Stefon Harris – vibraphone; Jared Gold – Hammond B-3 organ; McClenty Hunter – drums, percussion; Steve Nelson – vibraphone (track 10))
Tired of ho-ho-ho-hum holiday music? Guitarist Dave Stryker has you ‘covered’. On the 51-minute Eight Track Christmas Stryker and his quartet swing and groove their way through a soulful bunch of perennial pieces, including traditional tunes (“Greensleeves,” “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” and “O Tannenbaum”), classic cuts (“Sleigh Ride” and “We Three Kings”), newer numbers (“Happy Xmas (War Is Over),” “Blue Christmas” and “This Christmas”) and more. A bit of back history: in 2014 Stryker issued his first album in his popular all-covers Eight Track series. Eight Track Christmas is the fourth entry in the conceptually-connected projects. Stryker is once again supported by Hammond B-3 organist Jared Gold (who has played with Benny Golson, Bob Mintzer and Ralph Peterson Jr.); vibraphonist Stefon Harris (about eight records as leader; and sideman to Greg Osby, Ry Cooder, Kurt Elling and others); and drummer McClenty Hunter (who has performed with Kenny Garrett, Eddie Henderson, Eric Reed and lots more).
Stryker states, “I think I was able to put my stamp on this batch of holiday favorites and make a pretty hip record.” Stryker certainly has accomplished what he set out to do. Eight Track Christmas has numerous precedents. If anyone looks closely at Stryker’s CD cover they’ll see some of the records which inspired him: James Brown’s Funky Christmas (a 1995 compilation); Jimmy Smith’s Christmas Cookin’ (1966) and the 1982 various artists collection, Christmas Soul Special.
Stryker kicks off with Donny Hathaway’s 1970 song “This Christmas,” which has become an oft -performed end-of-year choice. Previous renditions were done by Harry Connick, Jr., Aretha Franklin, Elling and other artists. During “This Christmas” Stryker’s expressive guitar takes the place of the vocal lines. Mid-tempo drums, comping organ and warm vibraphone bolster the guitar and supply notable solos. Another selection from the same timeframe is John Lennon’s 1971 single “Happy Xmas (War Is Over),” which began as a Vietnam War protest song and later evolved into a Christmastime standard frequently recorded by others including Neil Diamond, Diana Ross, Carly Simon and copious other musicians. Stryker never loses Lennon’s lyricism while emphasizing a bluesy treatment highlighted by organ, Hunter’s cymbals and Stryker’s melodic guitar lines. Blues is more pronounced on Stryker’s version of “Blue Christmas,” a venerable and essential piece of Christmas music made famous in the late ‘50s by Elvis Presley. Stryker dispenses with any country inclinations and heads straight into blues territory while Gold and Hunter provide the requisite jazz undercurrent. A blues hue also tinges Stryker’s melancholy translation of Vince Guaraldi’s 1965 tune, “Christmas Time Is Here,” from the animated Peanuts TV special, A Charlie Brown Christmas. The well-known ditty has a picturesque mannerism and Stryker maintains just the right amount of low-toned anxiety which permeates most interpretations of this track. The CD’s peak is probably “Soulful Frosty,” which combines “Frosty the Snowman” with the Young-Holt Unlimited’s 1968 instrumental hit “Soulful Strut.” When this comes on, forget kissing under the mistletoe, it’ll be time to grab a partner and dance under that leafy plant.
There’s also magic on a spate of traditional cuts. Stryker puts fresh swing into a soul-saturated “Greensleeves.” He and the band get slightly funky during “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” which could have easily been retitled “Get Funky Ye Merry Gentlemen.” Another agreeable gem is a quick-paced “We Three Kings,” where Stryker and Gold trade some stimulating lines and Stryker showcases his six-string sizzle. There’s more swing on the album-closing “O Tannenbaum.” It’s a good bet this tune would increase the zing to any holiday party and add some auditory spice to any eggnog. Guest vibraphonist Steve Nelson helps keep the arrangement grooving, especially when he takes the spotlight. Don’t get stuck listening to the same-old holiday music this season. Strike up some Stryker and your holiday get-together will have some extra oomph.
God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen
Happy Xmas (War Is Over)
Christmas Time Is Here
We Three Kings