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In The Flesh

Live Review: Mike Stern at Jazz Showcase

| May 15, 2019

Mike Stern (Photo: Sandrine Lee)


Mike Stern Band

Saturday, May 11, 2019

Jazz Showcase, Chicago

Jazz guitar virtuoso Mike Stern and his band settled into the Jazz Showcase for their annual week of residency, and audiences were most definitely in for a treat.

Upon entering the Showcase, I was immediately greeted by Ainsley, who was welcoming the faithful as they readied themselves for Stern’s eclectic and electrifying take on jazz. I have attended many shows at the Jazz Showcase over the years; kudos to Joe and Wayne Segal for consistently providing such a superb venue for jazz in Chicago. I proceeded to enter the room to find a small crowd hovered around Mike Stern.

Leaning on the bar at the back of the room, Stern was signing a few CDs for the loyal listenership still hanging around from the previous set earlier in the evening. Observing how accommodating he is with his admirers; it was refreshing to see the internationally famous artist having no airs about himself, his energy directed more towards making his followers feel important.

The staff assisted the first audience out of the room to allow the second set’s audience to enter. As the time approached for the downbeat of this second set, a feeling of anticipation grew within the room. As with the intimate nature of most jazz clubs, many artists tend to take the stage one by one, well before any formal introduction––and in such a casual fashion you feel like you’re at a private concert hosted by your neighbor down the street. Such was the case with Stern and company.

After an introduction by the Showcase, Stern and band hit the ground running with “Half Crazy,” a tune from his latest album Trip. After an ostensibly random (if brief) intro of guitar and piano noodling seemingly keyless lines with the occasional high pitched sax bursts, this was all juxtaposed against a very hip high hat/snare and bass swing rhythm. Magically, the individual lines all converged into a glorious head of melody resulting in the tunes’ central groove. So Infectious. As the night progressed, we heard other tunes from Trip including “Blueprint” and the album’s title song among others, all with deep grooves firmly in place along with outstanding soloing from all on stage.

In traditional jazz fashion, the recognizable format the band employs is well known to the jazz aficionados in attendance:  Introductions lead into the “head” or A section where the main melody is offered, usually twice, followed by a B section, then back to the A section, where the tune then repeats the formula for the benefit of improvisation. Improv of course, is the main philosophy behind jazz––where each musician can explore new ideas and effectively tell a story while never playing the same solo twice.

The solos in evidence this evening proved to be absolutely delightful; further proof that Stern’s three “accompanists” were tremendous virtuosic soloists in their own right. Band members Edmond Gilmore (bass); Richie Morales (drums), and Dale Walsh (sax) wowed the audience multiple times throughout the evening. Edmond Gilmore was the consummate bassist who brought to mind Victor Wooten and Hadrien Feraud; Gilmore’s technique was astounding. Richie Morales’ drumming exhibited an enhanced sense of time; his soloing was dynamic and inventive. Dale Walsh’s saxophone was a highlight, interweaving with Stern in such elaborate yet eloquent ways, one assumes they have played together for years. The timbre of Walsh’s instrument was equal to his chops –  just superb. Stern’s wife, the excellent guitarist and vocalist Leni Stern, was also on this tour with the band but was not featured in this particular set.

Throughout the night, when you think Stern’s chops can’t get any better, they do. He was in top form and repeatedly captivated the audience, as evidenced by the audience’s instant and consistent applause. Stern’s dialogue with the audience was most entertaining as he occasionally explained the motivating ideas behind selected tunes. On several occasions, he took the time to praise his bandmates and recognize them for the stellar musicians that they are. When the band reassembled for the encore, he asked for any requests, when a voice from the audience shouted “Hendrix!” With a nod and a wink from Stern, the band proceeded with quite the hip version of “Purple Haze.” A tremendously fun ending to a most memorable set.

There is quite a story behind Stern’s latest album, Trip. On July 3, 2016, he was crossing a street in Manhattan when he tripped over some camouflaged construction debris that was not supposed to be there. Using both his hands to break the fall, Stern broke both of his arms and has nerve damage in his right hand. Not unlike drummers Ray Levier and Phil Collins, who both had to glue their drum sticks to their hands after similar debacles, Stern glues the pick to his thumb and forefinger to help his grip. Amazingly, after multiple surgeries, he was back playing gigs only three months after the accident. “There’s no way I was going to give up, I love playing too much,” Stern told me after the show. As he tells the story to his audiences, it becomes evident that he has embraced the accident in the aim of turning it into a positive. It makes one think of the great Django Reinhardt who, after having his left hand burned in a fire, continued to play amazingly with only two viable fingers on his left hand.

To say that Mike Stern is an inspiration is an understatement. Such evidence of sheer determination is more than a profile in courage; it’s a testimonial to his unwavering perseverance. It is no coincidence he titled his latest album Trip.

As Stern and I were wrapping up our conversation at the end of the evening, he turned to me and said, “Hey, I like your last name. It rhymes with my motto — keep going.”

–Steven Kikoen

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