Forget the week-long atmospheric river – it’s a bright Seattle day when part of the Miles Davis brain trust swings through town. A year ago we had Marcus Miller, and a few months later Dave Holland. This week Jazz Alley welcomed guitarist Mike Stern, who appeared on two Miles studio records (The Man with the Horn and Star People) and one live album (We Want Miles) between 1981 and 1983.
One expects brilliance from any musician associated with Miles’s bands. What they don’t expect is a chance to drive said artist back to their hotel after the gig. More on that in a bit.
The years that Stern spent with Miles came immediately after the trumpeter’s hiatus from the musical world, a period during which, as Miles wrote in his autobiography, “Sex and drugs took the place music had occupied in my life, and I did both of them round the clock.” (In typical Hollywood fashion, this period was selected for the relatively unflattering Don Cheadle biopic Miles Ahead.)
When Miles returned to the scene he hooked up with a new cast of musicians, and met Stern through the saxophonist Bill Evans. Miles was progressing into his rock phase by now and he found the right man in Stern, an understated shredder out of the Berklee School of Music who practiced under Pat Metheny and gigged with Billy Cobham. Those years were marked by heavy drinking and heroin use for Stern and many others around him. Stern made it through. Some others, for example the bassist Jaco Pastorius – who Stern toured with in ’83 and ’84 – did not.
Stern’s persona seems more even-keeled these days, as does his playing. Since his chaotic rise onto the 80s scene, he’s recorded 20-odd studio albums, earned Guitar Player magazine’s Jazz Guitarist of the Year award (1993), and built multiple Grammy-nominated supergroups.
He brought one of these supergroups to Jazz Alley this Tuesday and Wednesday, a quintet featuring his wife Leni Stern on vocals and guitar, Bob Franceschini on saxophone, Jimmy Haslip on electric bass, and a show-stealing Dennis Chambers on drums.
The concert started out sedate, with Leni Stern playing an oud-style instrument and leading vocals on her song “Like a Thief.” Things picked up steam during a nearly 15-minute rendition of Stern’s “Out of the Blue,” from 2012’s All Over the Place. From there, energy remained high, with a few bridges for the audience to catch its breath. Stern’s telltale, pitch-altered guitar tone underlay the majority of it, and he found a frequent harmonic mirror in Franceschini, who echoed the bandleader’s written compositions with powerful velocity. Chambers, on the drums, played both organizer and engine.
Stern’s songwriting stations him on the jazz-leaning side of the fusion spectrum. His rapid-fire melodies and dense chordal changes have found a logical home in bands involving Michael and Randy Brecker, Peter Erskine, and David Sanborn. These complex, sometimes head-scratchingly brisk tunes made for a lively time down at the Alley. For an encore Stern played to the home crowd, showcasing surprisingly distinguished vocal chops (he rarely sings in the studio) on Jimi Hendrix’s “Red House.”
After the show, my friend and I waited for the crowd to thin out before meandering up to the stage to inspect Stern’s equipment – we’re both guitarists. Most of the band had retired to the green room at this point, but Stern puttered around onstage, organizing gear and packing up his signature Yamaha axe. As he did, he kept up loose dialogue with two men – his managers, I presumed – about getting a ride somewhere.
“We can’t,” one of them told his companion. “We’ve got to get back to Vancouver. Seriously, Jerry, look how hard it’s raining out there. We’ve got to go.”
I realized these weren’t Stern’s managers, just fans. They left, and Stern continued packing. I stepped into the vacuum and asked if Stern did in fact need a ride, unlikely as it seemed.
“Oh yeah, man. That’d be great,” he said. “It’s real close. You think you could fit the gear, too?”
Sure, I said, no problem. My friend played intermediary at the club while I jogged back to the parking garage for a cursory clean of my Corolla. Not great, I thought. In fact, not even good. But Stern and his wife are jazz guitarists; I doubted they would mind. They didn’t. Back at Jazz Alley, the amiably chatting Sterns piled their gear in the trunk. Then all four of us rolled up a couple dark, wet Seattle blocks to their hotel, where my friend and I helped them unload.
In the process we got about twenty minutes of fantastic conversation. When it came to music, and art more generally, Stern left us with this: “Just get out there and keep playing your heart out.”