Review: Mike Stern

Mike Stern Quartet
(Ronnie Scott’s Club, July 12th, 2010, Review by Dr. Richard Niles)

Guitarist Mike Stern ripped Ronnie’s apart last night with three of the finest musicians to have ever graced that stage. It is significant to note that the audience ranged in age from 16 to 65 and this electric and electrifying band sent them all home sweating – and not just because of the lack of effective air conditioning!

Chris Minh Doky is a double threat on both electric bass guitar and electric double bass both driving the riffs and soloing confidently. Dave Weckl is a drum icon who helped create the template for contemporary drumming with his legendary performances with Chick Corea. Last night he was as brilliant as I have ever heard him, playing with the sensitivity of a cat, the precision of a brain surgeon and the power of The Devastator!

Randy Brecker could be said to have defined and invented jazz/rock with his influential compositions and arrangements for Dreams and The Brecker Brothers. His explosive soloing last night was aided by his trusty ‘octaver’ which adds a digital octave above his natural trumpet sound. This enables him to play in context with the rock aerobatics of the leader.

I’ve known Mike Stern since we were students together at The Berklee College of Music in the late ‘70s, both studying with the 19 year old Pat Metheny. He played in my Guitar Quartet, commissioned by Metheny for my Graduation Concert. (The other guitarists were Mitch Coodley and the superb Jay Azzolina!)

Stern has gone on to become (with Metheny) one of the most consistently productive, creative and innovative musicians in jazz—certainly the finest jazz guitarist of the last 40 years to play with a rock sound. His solos strike an enjoyable balance between bebop shredding and searing blues. Only playing of this calibre could match the joy evident in his almost perpetual smile. His phenomenal facility (the result of his legendary obsessive practice routine) is balanced by an understanding of melody that is both sophisticated and non-elitist. Stern told me he finds melody everywhere.

“Melody can be heard in the air, the wind, some sounds you hear when there’s total silence. Melody can be heard in rhythm, like a drum solo, and the two are not mutually exclusive. A lot if this stuff is up for interpretation, which is beautiful. And that’s one of the great things about music or about art in general: it’s not a right or wrong, win or lose thing.

“The Beatles melodies were memorable and beautiful. But though a strong melody should be memorable, sometimes it takes a few times listening to it. A great melody can be complex—John Coltrane played some incredible melodies! The first time you hear it you think, ‘What the hell was that?’ Then you hear the melody over and over again and you get it! Or you don’t get it! Or you might say, ‘That wasn’t really ‘on’.’ In Coltrane’s case, usually he was ON!

“Getting the chance to play with Miles Davis and hearing him play night after night was a great melodic influence because he was so into singing on the horn. So a lot of the stuff he played was singable (although there was some linear stuff, some scat kind of lines that would be difficult to sing!) He used to tell me he got a lot of his phrasing ideas from Frank Sinatra, from the way Sinatra would interpret a popular melody.”

Dr. Richard Niles is a composer, producer and author of “The Pat Metheny Interviews” [Hal Leonard Publishing] www.richardniles.com

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