Sometimes I Hear You: Mike Stern
The Jazz Cafe
April 3, 2006
Sometimes the muse comes in with the performers, sometimes she doesn't. You can hear her absence instantly in a blindfold test; she steals in like your favorite perfume when she graces you with her presence. So it was with Mike Stern at the Jazz Café in Camden Town, a hip part of London where the Goths hang out waiting for sunrise. The jazzers know where to look for the muse; it's in our blood, we were inside getting into her stories with Stern and his group. In a two-hour set with Bob Franceschini on sax, Chris Minh Doky on bass and Kim Thompson on drumkit, everyone brought forth a different shade of her voice.
They opened with "Sunnyside from Between the Lines, a perfect argument for a dance floor, the music pulled it out of you. Stern's got a pedigree, he played with Blood, Sweat & Tears for a respectable tenure in the late '70's, and with Miles, Jaco and the Breckers among others. His latest outing is as a sideman on The Word is Out, a tribute to Jaco Pastorius with his big band. While his playing is somewhat reminiscent of Pat Metheny's with his ability to make the guitar sound like the fifth player of the group, to make any further comparisons would be misleading. If Metheny extemporizes on jazz's Theory of Relativity, then Stern demonstrates its Perfect Geometry; each serving their own unique ideas. But his moves are not stale, perfect angles have their own beauty, his musical architecture grounded as opposed to abstract. His support was stellar, all young enough to be alarming. Minh Doky immediately set himself forward as not only the foundational bass line but also a lyrical, sweeping player. In "Slow Change, he posed a harmonic dialectic, guitar vs. bass, one side then the other, only to coalesce to a single melody line, a hypnotic resolution of contrasts. Bob Franceschini was also a standout, incredibly honest and to the point with a personal, broad ranging accent. All were strong, sexy, bluesy, it feeds your spirit to hear this kind of playing.
Stern could sound like a handful of trouble casting spells on you with some rampant blues to mastering the room in a moment with his soul-twisting, ethereal ballads. "Wing and a Prayer had hope written through it like a tapestry, you knew it without the title. "What I Meant to Say captured all those moments when you just said to that someone what you never wanted to say, poignant and now gone forever. But the next song to last, "Still There, said it all. His music is American idiom but only the best of it, you can hear the wind in the canyons between the skyscrapers to the circling dancers in a Virginia Reel. And underlying it all is our real spirit, that nothing is accomplished without passion.
A woman on drums is rare enough in jazz, but transcending gender and race is the point of music, being human is sufficient reason to sing. An exceptional treat, Kim Thompson is possessed of a dynamic yet seductive style, half winsome gypsy girl, half African shaman woman. She has an original and sophisticated way of interpreting the rhythm that wove around the streets of your mind like a melody. Her unique talents were showcased in "KT, written by Stern with her in mind. From the new release, Who Let the Cats Out, due in September, it began with alley cats mewing and winding their way through the noise of the city to the dancing girl busking on the downtown street corner.
Indeed, Mike Stern and company, who let the cats out? Like you, we're still there; sometimes you can sing, and sometimes I hear you. In a world where noise is often mistaken for intent, there is nothing else that truly is, but oh, thank the muse for that.