LIVE: The Mike Stern Trio @ the Van Dyck, 1/22/16

January 28th, 2016, 4:00 pm by Greg
The Mike Stern Trio

The Mike Stern Trio

Review by J Hunter
Photographs by Rudy Lu

The first time I saw Mike Stern was in a club about the size of the Van Dyck’s upstairs performance space: It happened in a former disco near Boston University, where the guitarist was backing an older musician’s long-awaited comeback. The year was 1981, the venue was Kix Live, and the “older musician” was Miles Davis. (Fun Fact: Kix Live – immortalized by the track “Kix” on the serially infuriating live date We Want Miles – closed right after Davis’ multi-show stand and never re-opened again.) Stern has gone through a ton of changes between then and now, but if his flame-throwing performance in Schenectady was any indication, that journey was more than worth it.

After a brief Spinal Tap moment where Stern was announced but only his rhythm section – drummer Richie Morales and bassist Teymur Phell – appeared, Stern stepped onstage to loud applause from the packed house. “Sorry about that,” he said sheepishly, flashing the ingratiating grin we’d see multiple times during the 75-minute set. He gave his custom guitar (a dead-ringer for a Fender Telecaster) a quick tune, and that tuning became riffing, playing on progressions in the clear before Morales and Phell joined him on the nice hot groove of “Coupe de Ville.” That groove turned into a swinging thing that had Morales switching over to brushes. The vibe was straight out of Wes Montgomery, but Stern never stopped sounding like himself.

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Back in the day, Stern was all about volume. The snarling guitar lines he cranked out for Davis had more in common with Black Sabbath than it did with the fusion guitar of the period – which, in retrospect, was probably what attracted Miles, who loved having an X Factor in his back pocket. On this night, Stern would come close to blowing down the walls, but that didn’t happen until the end of the penultimate tune of the set, a dizzying re-boot of “Softly as in a Morning Sunrise.” Stern’s added a truckload of nuance to his bag of tricks, and there were points where you had to lean in to hear the moment he was making. That said, you clearly got the sense on “Coupe” – and the crunchy following piece “K.T.” – that Stern could have turned the joint into a mushroom cloud at any moment. There was a laughing quality to his quicksilver runs – the laugh of someone who was having a good time now, but could easily go postal at the drop of a hat.

While Stern played chorus after chorus of soaring color-filled lines, he didn’t have to carry the entire load himself. Phell’s six-string bass was phat and juicy as he held down the bottom, letting Morales stick and move at will, but every time Stern handed over the spotlight, Phell took to it like a piranha to a drowning steer. His sense of lyric was as high and wide as the frigid night sky outside the Van Dyck, and Stern was happy to toss out echoing comp chords as Phell’s solos drew louder and louder cheers from the crowd. Morales got his first solo on the very first tune, and he surely made the most of it, but every successive solo had a muscle, an energy and an originality that never gave you the sense that he’d gone back to the well one too many times.

While the set was mostly made up of pieces from his discography, there was a constant sense of invention and re-invention as Stern and his partners jammed out whenever the moment called for it. Sometimes that moment called for Stern to sing his guitar lines, which he did in a voice that ranged from an engaging falsetto to an unadorned tenor that recalled John Mayall at his height. Whatever was happening on that small stage, a sense of fun was always present as the trio clearly enjoyed playing together as much as we enjoyed listening to them. This was no less evident than at the end of “Sunrise,” which left all and sundry drained and smiling. “BOY, that was a fast tempo,” Stern enthused as the crowd went wild. “I’m awake now!”

For me, though, the headline was how dialed in Stern was to the action. When he played Proctors with the Yellowjackets in 2009, he had no connection to the music, the crowd or even his band mates. He was back on his game when he played with Steve Smith and fellow Davis alum Bill Evans at the Freihofer’s Jazz Fest at SPAC in 2014, but that was more Evans’ music than anything else. Here it was all Mike Stern, all the time, and he was as exciting and electric as I’ve ever seen him – and, as I mentioned earlier, I’ve been watching him for a long, long time.

SECOND OPINIONS:
Excerpt from Michael Hochanadel’s review at The Daily Gazette: “Somewhere far over the speed limit, [Mike] Stern laid back for [bassist Teymur] Phell to solo, stopping his own feisty comping to raise his arms to signify amazement at what Phell was doing and laugh out loud. ‘Wow! That was a fast tempo!’ exclaimed Stern afterward as everybody caught their breath. We needed it: ‘Big Neighborhood’ rocked out harder than anything before it, Stern scat-singing up top before he and the band settled into a brisk, happily noisy dialog with [drummer Richie] Morales at his most forceful and fun. Nobody had a better time Friday than Stern himself, a happy player and generous collaborator who led gently, usually with musical rather than visible cues. His trio proved to be a fluent, flexible listening band; they knew the tunes but freely found their own ways through them. Stern’s playing had the same freedom and ease. He used lots of tones, achieving them with no fuss or fiddling, ranging from Metheny-like vaporous fog-chords to emphatic single-note blasts like Schofield. But he always sounded like absolutely no one but himself.”

ALSO SEE:
More of Rudy Lu’s photographs of the concert

Mike Stern

Mike Stern

Teymur Phell

Teymur Phell

Richie Morales

Richie Morales

The Mike Stern Trio

The Mike Stern Trio