New York City
December 22, 2018
By Ray Chelstowski
In the heart of Times Square during the busiest time of the year, Mike Stern hosted a small residency at the legendary Iridium – a club made famous by it's one-time most regular guest, Les Paul. Over the years the stage has been a temporary home to many guitar greats and Mike Stern is one of the room’s favorites. The setting is intimate and accommodates less than 200 guests. The best players take full advantage of their proximity to the crowd, and Mike Stern is no exception. On this Saturday night he revealed a comfort that comes with having played the space many times before, wowing patrons from all over the world. At times things seemed so cozy that it almost felt as if he were performing in his own living room. In turn, the vibe was completely casual — like a private performance for friends.
While the world right outside the Iridium was blustery and cold, inside the temperature got fiery fast. Joined by what many would call “the best in the business.” The Mike Stern Band delivered a tight set of no more than a half dozen songs. Each individual member would shine brightly, and Stern was happy throughout to share center stage. On bass was Tom Kennedy with his signature five-string Fodera. The incomparable Dennis Chambers (Parliament/Funkadelic) was behind the Pearl kit. Holding down horn duties on the side was Randy Brecker whose collaborations/contributions are possibly more expansive than any working musician today. Brecker is simply the living embodiment of having “done it all.” At the tender age of 73 (and the oldest of this seasoned quartet) he blew his horn as hard as he did on the album that first introduced me to The Brecker Brothers, 1978’s Heavy Metal Be-Bop. Brecker delivered many of the evening’s 'wow' moments – and there were quite a few.
Things got underway with a world music infused track. There Stern’s wife Leni appeared on stage with the n’goni, a West African ceremonial instrument she has experimented with on recent solo albums. This somewhat soft launch very quickly blossomed into a seemingly non-stop musical explosion defined by razor sharp precision. In fact, throughout the night what proved most impressive was how tight Stern’s performance actually was. It was extremely articulate. Some patrons even argued after the show that it was possibly the most fluent his sound may have ever been. This is even more significant when you consider that only two years ago while trying to hail a cab in New York City, Stern tripped over some construction debris. The result was two broken arms and nerve damage in his wrist and hands. It was severe enough that the injuries initially prevented him from even holding a pick. These days he uses an epoxy to keep it affixed to his fingers. As he flew through runs, the pick seemed to flutter in his grip but he missed few notes and exhibited a crispness that for even Mike Stern was exceptional. The evening really was a feat of many kinds.
The real standout of the night was the group’s performance of “Avenue B” from Stern’s 2004 studio release These Times. There each member of the band delivered a mind-bending solo performance that matched speed and precision with brilliant innovation and imagination. This was on particular display when Kennedy broke into The Temptations “Papa Was A Rolling Stone” and took it on a Blue Angels-like air show ride.
Things wrapped up with a short Jimi Hendrix cover of the blues tune “Red House.” There Stern took to the mic and playfully delivered vocals intermixed with smiles of genuine joy. To be fair, those smiles knitted the entire night together. In the end I’m not sure who had more fun, the fans or Mike Stern.
This homecoming was a celebration of a lot of things. Sure there is the music and the musicianship. Mike always plays with the best sidemen. In fact, after the show he told me it doesn’t matter whether he is joined by someone on sax or on trumpet. The mix doesn’t change. They just attack it. But what is most awe-inspiring is that his commitment to greatness not only informs Stern’s level of play. It also ensures that there is very little that can prevent him from sharing his talent with his fans. His recovery from that “Trip” is the real thing that I can’t ignore. It’s likely also the most important and lasting takeaway from the night. Looking back now, it’s actually delivered one of this holiday season’s greatest gifts.