Story and photos by Brad Walseth, Copyright 2010
Electric guitarist Mike Stern is a bit of an unusual addition to the stage at the generally more-traditionally minded Jazz Showcase venue last week, But, although he can "shred" with the best of the rock and rollers, Stern also is an excellent jazz player with stints with people like Miles Davis, Billy Cobham, Dave Sanborn and Jaco Pastoriuos on his resume before breaking out as an acclaimed GRAMMY-nominated bandleader in his own right in the late 1980s and through the ' 90s. Joined by drummer Lionel Cordew and stellar electric bassist Tom Kennedy, the effervescent guitarist charmed the crowd with his upbeat personality, while dazzling them with his accelerated antics on the fretboard.
Starting off with an airy improvisation that sounded quite Pat Metheny-ish, the band moved into and energetic version of "Green Dolphin Street." Dancing and smiling while playing, the song suddenly morphed into Jimi Hendrix's "3rd Stone from the Sun," much to the delight of many in the audience who had come to see Stern put on a clinic on how to make a guitar catch fire.
Continuing to mine the jazz vein, a version of Harry Warren's "You'll Never Know" followed, but was presented as a bluesy reggae that got very heavy toward the end. As the song ended in a blues guitar crescendo, the young boy sitting next to me (it was the matinee) let out a "Wow," that elicited much laughter from Stern and the crowd.
An Afrobeat number followed, with Kennedy playing the part of the Kalimba on the higher register of his bass strings. This talented bassist interlocked perfectly with Stern, creating the illusion of one giant stringed instrument. He would go on to play some wonderful solos during the performance - and as with the best players so smooth as to never seeming to break a sweat. Meanwhile, Stern ended the number with his guitar making seagull cries through his effect pedal and the volume knob of his guitar.
Stern uses a small but effective number of effect pedals in a very tasteful manner. He also sings along while he plays - and rather than being a distraction (as with Keith Jarrett) - Stern's tuneful singing is a element of pure joy.
Of course, no Stern guitar concert would be complete without some good time rock and roll (he admits to relating to a wide range of musical styles) and the last song of the set started with some deliriously funky stuff from Kennedy before Stern stepped on the pedals and turned his guitar into a rattlesnake. Bending his notes almost off the guitar neck, he had the crowd jumping for joy. An encore of Sonny Rollin's "Sonnymoon for Two" included more unbelievable riffs and made for a highly satisfying conclusion to an exciting event. As is tradition at the Showcase, the young people attending the concert were then welcomed onto the stage by the genial guitar god. Despite Stern's rock leanings, his well-attended sets and gracious and friendly demeanor lead me to suspect that we will see him grace the Jazz Showcase again in the future.