Thursday, December 21, 2006

Mike Stern: The Tom Cruise Of Jazz?

Some of you may be puzzled that I would make the assertion that the sensei of jazz fusion known as Mike Stern should be compared to the borderline psychotic who decides to revisit his childhood memories of recess on daytime talk shows. However, Mike Stern exhibited the same automatic smile that we see Tom Cruise exhibit in every interview he does and every picture that is taken of him (at least when he is prepared for it) during the first installment of his doubleheader at Yoshi’s Jazz And Sushi on Wednesday (the 20th of December), where Stern seemed overloaded with endorphins from the moment he arrived at the club to the end of his performance.

I first sighted Stern as he walked in the front door of Yoshi’s, about 45 minutes prior to taking the stage, and started setting up a table from which to sell and autograph his new album, Who Let The Cats Out?. It didn’t seem like Stern felt he was at work, as he beamed his way through interactions with far more than a handful of fans before he played his first note.

After that first note eminated from his Telecaster, the guitarist, along with master drummer Dennis Chambers, bassist/scat singer Richard Bona and saxophonist Bob Franceschini, simply practiced his way through a masterful hour-and-a-half set. I say practiced because it didn’t seem like a show to the guitarist and his band; it seemed like they might as well have been jamming in Stern’s bedroom, but this claim is misleading, as most bedroom jam sessions do not produce an ohm of the transcendental electricity that filled Yoshi’s concert hall during this genre-hopping band’s set. With a keen and efficient use of a delay effect in his rig, Stern, along with his spotless band, went through bebop, pop fusion, funk, and rock with such a fluidity that what he was really playing was pure enjoyable musical sound, with all hints of constraint regarding style and genre gone happily AWOL.

This was showcased best during Stern’s solo spot, which came about two-thirds of the way through the set and seemed to sum up whatever it really is that is the eclectic philosophy that takes hold of Stern when he straps on a guitar- melodies, rhythms, and genres changed throughout the eight-minute guitar aria, but his seemingly bulletproof anticipation and limitless imagination made these changes not annoying, but welcome updates and improvements on something that did not need updates or improvements anyway. Dennis Chambers exhibited this same dichotomy of playfulness and genius during his solo spots, and unlike most drummers he was able to keep the moments in which Yoshi’s concert hall was filled with just the sound of his skins attached to the greater purpose- the song- and was able to put out what sounded like powerful extended fills rather than a really loud interruption, a defect of most drum solos that are played within and as part of a modern music context.

But the most impressive thing about Stern and his band during the time I observed them at Yoshi’s was that it seemed like they were not aware of their respective jobs at hand- they played their set, beaming like Tom Cruise on the Today Show all the way through, and played like professionals without alluding one bit to the fact that what they were doing was a profession.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Eddie Palmieri: Latin Warrior And His Band Protect The Honor Of Yoshi's

In a small concert hall that allows its patrons to eat sushi from the adjacent restaurant while watching performers, Yoshi’s Jazz and Sushi would seem to the average out-of-towner to be a novelty joint that would not offer topnotch performers of the jazz world on a nightly basis. However, Yoshi’s has established itself as arguably the best jazz venue in the whole Bay Area, and Eddie Palmieri and his band, La Perfecta Dos (the “sequel” to his original 1960’s-era band, La Perfecta) more than maintained that reputation on Sunday (December 10th).

Palmieri and his band are major frequenters of jazz festivals worldwide, and I expect to see him on multiple festival stages later this year, though this show was an excellent preview for later festival outings.

There were two shows that night, and I went to see the 9 p.m. show, as tickets to the 7 p.m. show were already sold out. The 200-plus crowd, at least half of whom joined me in the around-the-block line outside the club that was mercifully warmed on this Arctic night by overhead heaters, came to the show ready to dance and would turn the middle aisle of the concert hall into a packed-to-the-gills dance floor by the halfway mark of Palmieri’s set. Of course, to anyone who knows Palmieri’s energetic brand of salsa, mambo, and Latin jazz, this is usually something to be expected. Palmieri, the band leader, pianist, and back-up vocalist, and his band- Herman Olivera on lead vocals, Giovanni Hidalgo on congas, Eddie Zervigon on flute, Jimmy Bosch and Joe Fielder on trombone, Eddie Resto on bass, Anthony Carillo on bongos, Jose Claussell on timbales, and John Santos on Coro- delivered flawless, high-energy grooves in every song, while sometimes taking off in polyrhythms and varying meters in the middle of the song, and sporadically starting off higher-energy numbers with a ballad-like piano prelude, all just to keep everything fresh.

The icing on the cake, however, was how much the musicians were visibly involved in and enthusiastic towards the music they were creating- the entirety of the set showcased every single musician with an ear-to-ear grin on his face, except at the grimace-filled times when they were straining to get out that last line of notes or beats on time with the most power possible. The only time this passion ever detracted from the overall vibe of the concert, in my mind, was when Hidalgo took an extended conga solo, which left the percussionist to play by himself in the middle of the last song of the set; while it was in its own right incredible, the solo seemed out of place in a set of songs driven by the collective effort of 10 musicians.

Unfortunately, neither band leader Palmieri or lead vocalist Olivera formally introduced any of their songs in the set, so I, who was not and still am not particularly familiar with Palmieri’s material, was not able to discern the definite names of any songs played during Palmieri’s show. However, from the words of the mantras that were repeated by Olivera throughout the duration of some of the songs, I was able to make an educated guess that the names of the four songs that really showcased Palmieri and his band’s explosive power were “Echando ‘pa Lante”, “Con La Perfecta”, “Allegria”, and “Lengua Su Cante”. In both “Allegria” and “Echando ‘pa Lante”, the bongo solos performed by Carillo were able to lock into the groove while still rocketing into the stratosphere with their machine-gun tempo, while Olivera constantly engaged the crowd with his charisma and dancing and Bosch and Fielder flailed back and forth like two human Slinkies while shooting fireball harmonies out of their trombones. Meanwhile, “Con La Perfecta” and “Lengua Su Cante” were of the more low-key variety, yet the songs still maintained the power of the faster numbers through the virtuoso chromatic playfulness of Palmieri during his piano solos and polyrhythms from the bongos, congas, and timbales that charged the groove of the songs and kept them from becoming the least bit tiresome.

Shortly after “Lengua Su Cante” (the last song of the set) had concluded and the band walked off the stage, the Yoshi’s MC announced that Eddie had left the building. It was a slight disappointment for the 100-strong contingent of fans clamoring for an encore, but the explosive show put on by Palmieri proved that Yoshi’s is still more than making good on its promise to deliver great music, along with great raw fish.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Test post

Here is a test post to let me work on the formatting.