(Union Chapel, Islington, Friday 25 March, Review by Chris Parker)
Electric guitarist Mike Stern has an impeccable c.v. (Miles Davis, Michael Brecker, Billy Cobham, David Sanborn and Bob Berg have all shared stages with him over a three-decade career) and an impressive discography, but his gigs in the UK outside jazz clubs have been relatively rare, so this quartet appearance in a concert setting, leading a dream band (fusion drummer supreme Dave Weckl, tenorman Bob Malach and bassist Tom Kennedy) promised to be a genuine treat.
Stern is an indefatigable improviser, his appetite for exploring his relatively straightforward but compellingly listenable tunes apparent from the moment he steps up, his trademark blissed-out grin signalling his delight, and launches himself into one of his slow-building, initially spangly then increasingly urgent, hard-edged solos. He is at his best when he allows himself plenty of time to reach the frenzied climaxes that make his playing so exciting, and he stretched out on this occasion to such an extent that the band performed fewer than a dozen tunes, embracing everything from blistering jazz-rock to swooning ballads, in a ninety-minute set, mining his back catalogue for the likes of ‘KT’ from the 2006 album Who Let the Cats Out? and ‘I Know You’ from 2004’s These Times.
Skilfully exploiting the tonal contrast between his rapturously fluent, sweet-toned guitar and Malach’s throaty urgency, Stern clearly entranced a full house with solo after solo that exploited the full range of the sounds and textures available to his instrument, and the standing ovation he and his band received before launching themselves into a short encore was richly deserved.
All the more dispiriting, then, to have to report that the Union Chapel’s acoustics, which rendered rhythm-section subtleties (and Weckl and Kennedy are past masters at providing these in spades) redundant, reducing the most bristlingly precise of Weckl’s drum solos to rackety clatters in which individual strokes were almost indistinguishable, were a great deal more of a hindrance than a help to a top-flight band in fine fettle.
‘One of the best electric guitarists of his generation’ (and amen to Mike Zwerin’s assessment, quoted on Stern’s website) surely deserved better.
Photo from mikestern.org