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.