Mike Stern and Kenny Garrett
New York, New York
December 31, 2008
It is New Year's Eve, and the temperature shown on the buildings around Time Square as minus 12!... I had just seen Mike Stern, jazz-fusion guitarist extraordinaire, at Broadway's Iridium jazz club. To get there, I had to sacrifice a backpack, leaving it nearby as police would not allow entrants to the closed-off area, including clubs like Iridium, for the New Year's Eve celebrations to carry large containers.
I caught the first set. Stern was appearing with a quartet, a star-studded line-up if ever there was one: Kenny Garrett on alto sax (he and Stern both played with Miles Davis' group in the '80s), Tom Kennedy on bass, and the power-house Dennis Chambers on the drums.
The crowd (at least, in the vicinity of this writer's table) included French and Japanese people, nationalities that are very firm and committed jazz fans in this writer's experience. Stern walked onto the stage, explaining he would tune up. He introduced Kenny Garrett as "the real Kenny G...Kenny Garrett!" Chambers sat behind a massive kit, three toms at eye level in front of him, and massive Zildjian cymbals awaiting their punishment. Throughout the set he chewed his signature gum: an endorsement? "Dennis Chambers chews brand 'X' gum." Has a nice ring to it, not unlike his Zildjians.
The proceedings began with a long piece initiated by a Jimi Hendrix-style riff. Stern began to throw in octaves, a familiar feature of his playing, as Garrett stood alongside, beating the time with his right hand on his sax, waiting for his entry. Multiple chords began and more octaves. Then Garrett soloed, then Kennedy and finally Chambers.
The next tune was the opening track from Stern's latest album, the humorously named Who Let The Cats Out (Heads Up, 2006). The piece, called "K.T.," features a pretty descending figure, which Stern played in unison with Garrett. The final chord appeared to be an F with a sharpened dominant up top, on the second string.
The third tune was an African style of melody, again "pretty" but softer than the preceding material (if not the identical tune, it was certainly suggestive of the compelling Stern composition, "We're With You"). Garrett then played the figure in unison with the guitar. Coming closer to the front of the stage, Kennedy's bass was revealed as a huge cut-away instrumentplenty of room for high notes there. The ending was like rain falling gently ... on the African soil?
The opening of the next tune was funky, and Chambers appeared momentarily lost, looking quizzically at Stern. But he fell into the groove when the riff began, another Hendrix-like figure, a very funky, with just the guitar and drums at first. Then music and mood changed: another feeling of pleasant falling rain (in a hot climate!). When Garrett played, the word "mellifluous" occurred to this writer. A sequence of "chasing the (Roman) I chord" followed: V-IV-I by way of a bendy figure. A G ninth chord from Stern finished the tune. Several tunes were from Who Let The Cats Out, such as "Tumbling Home," "Language," and "We're With You" as well as "K.T."
Stern told me later that his two main influences are Wes Montgomery and Jimi Hendrix. This was certainly apparent in the music, as huge electric soundsa decidedly Stern version of Hendrixand fast octave playing a la Montgomery, were much to the fore. It's a great if not irresistible sound: prior to the gig, this writer by chance found a copy of the first album that Stern recorded with Miles DavisThe Man With The Horn (Columbia, 1981)and was soon well hooked on the big, vaguely fuzzed feel of Stern's playing. The enormous chords played by just the guitar to open "Back Seat Betty"Davis' remembrance of the briefest-tenured of his wivesis guaranteed to make you a Mike Stern fan. There is also an exceptional yet distinctive Stern solo on the album's opener, "Fat Time."
The quality of Stern's "heavy" sound is unique, as individual as Hendrix's yet very different. And, on his lighter (late Wes Montgomery) side, octaves always work well for him on electric guitar (witness Swedish progressive band Opeth, and sometimes Hendrix himself).
Colors and flashing cymbal strikes came and went, and the set ended at high volume with a few moments of Stern and Garrett trading licks, Garrett repeating note for note Stern's stringed notes.
The set was not long ("too short" said a young French member of the audience near me in French: "trop court"!). However, it was long enough to present a very good picture of what Stern is up to a present. Buying his new album is a no brainer! The contrast between the smoking power of the hard-core electric riffs and the attractive lighter quasi-African sounds is both elegant and seductive.
Mike Stern is an electric stylist. And yes, Dennis Chambers' drums did appear to survive his powerful onslaughtjust.
Mike Stern, Who Let the Cats Out? (Heads Up, 2006)
Mike Stern, These Times (ESC Records, 2004)
Mike Stern, Voices (Atlantic/WEA, 2001)
Mike Stern, Play (Atlantic/WEA, 1999)
Mike Stern, Give and Take (Wounded Bird Records, 1997)
Mike Stern, Between the Lines (Atlantic UK, 1996)
Mike Stern, Is What It Is (Wounded Bird Records, 1994)
Mike Stern, Standards and Other Songs (Wounded Bird Records, 1992)
Mike Stern, Odds or Evens (Wounded Bird Records, 1991)
Mike Stern, Jigsaw (Wounded Bird Records, 1989)
Mike Stern, Time in Place (Wounded Bird Records, 1988)
Mike Stern, Upside Downside (Wounded Bird Records, 1986)
Mike Stern, Neesh (Absord Music Japan, 1983)
Simon Jay Harper