Mike Stern – Trip (2017)

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Mike Stern’s fresh new song “Trip” is your signature Stern tune: slithering bop sax/guitar bop lines, a simmering rock guitar solo showcase ending in a rousing climax also peppered by funkified bebop progressions. Yeah, that’s just the stuff that made me turn it up when my ol’ Jigsaw CD was playing. And all fans of this exciting and unique guitarist should be glad that we’re still getting music like this from him for thirty years running.

That’s because no matter how much God-given talent someone has in playing the guitar, the hand of fate can easily snatch that talent away. I’m reminded of the challenges faced by extraordinary guitar players Pat Martino and Larry Carlton whose means of living (and source of great fame) were seriously threatened by unforeseen events and how through sheer determination they fought their way back to their former greatness. That same turn befell Stern in July, 2016 when he tripped and fell while hailing a taxi near his Manhattan apartment. The resulting nerve damage to his right arm left him unable to even hold a guitar pick. After a couple of surgeries, a little ingenuity — such as gluing his right hand fingers to the pick — and a whole lot of grit, Stern had regained his form in a matter of months. Not only was he back gigging and touring, he ventured back to the studio in early 2017 to make his 17th album, dispelling any doubts about his confidence in his craft.

Even Stern’s sense of humor remains intact: Trip (September 8 2017, Heads Up International) is his “it’s all good” declaration, a seamless continuity from one of fusion and jazz guitar’s most consistently strong and unique voices of the last three decades.

Heck, if you got hooked on Stern in the late 80s or 90s, you’d even call this a case of déjà vu. His primary producer and keyboardist since 1991’s Odds Or Evens Jim Beard is on board for this ride, too. Drummer Dennis Chambers, a former mainstay on Stern records, returns for several tracks as well. Saxophonist Bill Evans goes way back with Stern to Miles Davis’ 1981 comeback band and contributes to a couple of tracks. And Stern’s close ties to the Brecker brothers is maintained with an appearance by Randy Brecker.

That only scratches the surface on the accomplished friends brought onto this project. When Chambers isn’t drummer, it’s Dave Weckl, Will Calhoun or Lenny White instead. Wallace Roney’s on here, as is bass extraordinaire Victor Wooten…even Mike’s wife Leni Stern makes an appearance.

Does all this make for good music? The better question might be, how could it not?

Like the title song, “Whatchacallit” (video above) is another one of Stern’s fun hybrids of bop, funk and rock, also with Bob Franceschini on sax. Stern finds all the right notes on a soulful midtempo delight “Blueprint,” and so does Brecker when the baton is handed off to him. “Half Crazy” is a full-on excursion into a toe-tapping, straight ahead swing but Stern’s guitar personality is so dominant and pliable for any type of music, you might not even notice when he changes styles on and Evans is in fine form as well for this semi-Miles band reunion.

Roney supplies the trumpet partner and foil to Stern for “Screws,” featuring a sly bass from Teymur Phell. Stern’s acoustic guitar playing hadn’t taken any noticeable hit, either, as evidenced on the gentle, all-unplugged number “Gone” and check out the calypso groove that Weckl and Arto Tuncboyaciyan (on percussion) make together on “Hope For That.”

“Emilia” showcases Stern’s knack for building a lightly jubilant melody accentuated by background vocals from him and Gio Moretti. On there and another soft tune “I Believe You” Leni Stern brings not her guitar but an n’goni — a three stringed African instrument — to provide just a touch of exotic flavor to these tracks.

The album ends with a couple of jazz classics…sort of. “Scotch Tape and Glue” shares chord changes with “On Green Dolphin Street” highlighted by Evans’ solo aside that’s a respectful nod to the sax masters before him. More straight-jazz ends the whole program with “B Train,” Stern’s cunning re-write of “Take The A Train” that features Roney on the muted horn.

Mikes Stern might not soon forget about his accident but when he plays, he makes everyone else does. Trip is not a ‘return to form’ but rather, a reaffirmation of form. And for that, we can be very grateful.

S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron is an SQL demon for a Fortune 100 company by day, music opinion-maker at night. His musings are strewn out across the interwebs on jazz.com, AllAboutJazz.com, a football discussion board and some inchoate customer reviews of records from the late 1990s on Amazon under a pseudonym that will never be revealed. E-mail him at [email protected] .com or follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/SVictorAaron
S. Victor Aaron
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