With his mop of hair, thin frame and supercharged solos, Mike Stern looks and plays like a guitar hero out of a Wayne's World fantasy. There's also a slight goofiness about him, a naive joy in the fun to be had from his instrument; one could almost imagine him strumming air guitar to Brian May's solo from "Bohemian Rhapsody" in one of the film's most famous scenes.
One difference: the 52-year-old American is no rocker, but a Berklee-trained jazz musician. His musical acquaintances speak for his tastes; Jaco Pastorius, Michael Brecker, John Scofield and Dennis Chambers are among his collaborators over the years. And of all those names, it is Stern's that represents jazz's closest accommodation with rock.
Moments after Stern led his band - tenor saxophonist Bob Franceschini, bassist Chris Minh Doky and drummer Kim Thompson - on stage, the thundering pulse of a minor blues showed that their intentions were heavy. It was a typical Stern number, a twisting tune that refused to put down roots until the end of the 12-bar structure, when a simple resolution provided a declarative full stop.
The burly Franceschini has an equally burly tone. Apart from one solo he was kept a little on the sidelines; more of him would have been welcome, not least because tonally he provided a welcome contrast to a set dominated by guitar.
Sea metaphors always come to mind with Stern. He started with great, billowy, luminous chords over the choppy waves of the drums, before brewing up squalls across his guitar from which a single, singing solo note finally escaped to soar into the sky. At other times, great power chords signalled a change in the weather, either to a storm of greater ferocity, or a clearing of the clouds and a brief unison theme with Franceschini, which had echoes of the 1980s rock anthems that are obviously one of Stern's influences.
Minh Doky switched between a bottom-end heavy upright stick and a Stanley Clarke-ish electric bass, while Thompson showed mastery at the kit that earmarks her as a young woman with a future.
For all the impressive sound and fury, though, the most enjoyable number of the evening was a contemplative ballad. Stern was at his most heartfelt and honest, producing keening notes above a simple bass line and brushes accompaniment. He may be a guitar hero, but even heroes have moments of introspection.Reuse content