Stern Flexes Fusion Muscle at D.C.‘s Blues Alley

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Mike Stern's latest album, Trip, was released Sept. 8. (Photo: Sandrine Lee)

Mike Stern’s new album Trip is a curiously dissonance-tinted affair—perhaps referencing the fusion guitarist’s difficulty in adjusting to making music with nerve damage in his right arm, suffered from a fall last summer.

But there was nothing dissonant about his quartet performance Sept. 8 at Blues Alley in Washington, D.C.. That’s partly because they didn’t much assay the new tunes; until that week, Stern, trumpeter Randy Brecker, bassist Tom Kennedy and drummer Dennis Chambers hadn’t been in the same place long enough to rehearse them, and stuck to material they knew. But it’s also because these four fusion veterans, long acquainted, relied instead on the twin engines of groove and chemistry.

The former, of course, is impotent without the latter, and Stern knew it from the get-go. Opening on the quasi-swinging “Out Of The Blue,” the guitarist’s solo was so intent on carrying the groove in its first chorus that it spent several bars playing straight four-to-the-bar notes. But then Chambers shifted into standard spang-a-lang, and the tune’s previously downplayed 12-bar-blues frame suddenly became obvious. (Stern knew this, too, making a sudden turn into classic blues licks.)

After Brecker and Kennedy added their solos, Chambers turned the rhythm into an open experiment: He began a series of cross-rhythms between his snare and bass drums, never letting the kick accent fall in the same place against the snare’s insistent vamp; then came a thunderous, speedy solo that might have held its own against any heavy metal drummer.

Chambers continued experimenting on Stern’s “KT,” kicking from steady funk-rock into 7/8 toward the tune’s end while the rest of the band stayed in 4. But he never quite abandoned groove; indeed, he often established it, as when he and Kennedy spontaneously burst into the unmistakable rhythm of “Papa Was A Rolling Stone.” It eventually allowed Kennedy to become the venturesome one, unleashing a sixteenth-note attack with a meaty, melodic trajectory. The glee on the bassist’s face was obvious—and contagious, spreading immediately to Stern, Brecker and Chambers.

The part played by the group’s synergy, however, can’t be understated. For one thing, they erupted at least once into a jam, Stern and Chambers quickly joined by Kennedy and Brecker to charge down a gauntlet of jazz-funk. For another, it allowed them to explore several different rhythmic feels at once: The set’s third song (which Stern didn’t name, but which sounded very much like Trip’s “Emilia”) had a light Caribbean pulse at its core, though Stern, Chambers and Kennedy all played separate variations on it that coalesced into that core.

When Brecker entered, he first challenged all of these—he blew long, syncopated notes against their accents (especially Stern’s). By the time his solo began, though, the trumpeter had joined the fray, and added a bit of a soft-shoe cadence to the rhythmic mix.

Stern, incidentally, never evidenced any loss to his technical ability. If anything, he seemed charged up, finally releasing that energy with high-voltage blues riffs in a short but intense encore of Jimi Hendrix’s “Red House.” The lesson, perhaps, is that if a musician finds a stride with a few close colleagues, the technique takes care of itself. DB


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October 2017
Cécile McLorin Salvant
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