At the end of May I had the chance to fulfill one of my goals. That goal was to see Mike Stern live in concert. I had missed him once when he played in Montreal, then missed him again in Toronto and then in New York. I wasn’t about to miss him a fourth time. So when I heard back in January that he would be coming through Beijing, I marked it on my calendar and looked forward to it each passing day.
Mike Stern’s newest album, “Who Let the Cats Out?” was one that got me super excited when it first came out, as it kept the heart of the rock-fusion sound alive, but with this newest album also acknowledging the other advancements in Jazz in recent years. Funk, NuSoul, Neo-Traditional Jazz, and some Rhythm & Blues are all infused in Mike Stern’s music. “Who Let the Cats Out?” isn’t really all that new, being released in late 2006. But Mike Stern’s world tour, much akin to his career, has mastered the meaning of longevity, consistency and authenticity. His performance in Beijing was much the same.
Mike & Co. came out on stage unceremoniously, walking straight for their choice of instruments. He beckons to his mates to begin the first song, and away they go, inviting the audience to join them on their journey. Mike immediately begins to rock back and forth, consecutively bending each knee like an electric toy trying to run on the spot but with its feet nailed down to the floor. This sight coincides with the swiftest movements ever witnessed coming from human fingers. On his face is the child-like smile one can only have when experiencing innocent joy. Mike’s band moves at a lighting pace, led by the speed of their leader’s notes, but all with a comfortability and a little hop in their musical step while they revisit some complex harmonics. They’ve done this before, and it suits them just fine.
To me, Mike Stern is the standard bearer for the conclusion Miles Davis came to from his Rock-Fusion experiment. Mike Stern, along with his contemporaries like Jim Hall and John McLaughlin have been faithfully keeping with jazz-rock-fusion tradition, but more importantly steering the tradition as it steams forward in the twenty-first century.
The contemporary Jazz world has long been fragmented, producing numerous neo-traditionalists led by geniuses like trumpeter & composer Wynton Marsalis. In recent years what has been popularized as the ‘new’ sound of contemporary jazz is the electric guitar. Yet even in this declaration, it is the rounded, melodious sounds defined by Pat Metheny that are really what people think of when they talk about today’s jazz guitar. Mike Stern’s continued homage to Miles Davis’ fusion vision is almost the antithesis of Pat Metheny’s school of sound. But in the wonderful world of Jazz, where all sounds are positive, intellectual pillars of influence, we can see how both Pat Metheny and Mike Stern have jointly spurned on the young guitar leaders of jazz’s future; Matt Stevens, Kurt Rosenwinkel, and Julian Lage all have large elements of their music directly attributed to these two very distinct titans of contemporary jazz.
As a side note, isn’t it amazing how both Pat Metheny and Mike Stern (indeed most of the giants of contemp jazz) had their start from Miles Davis? This tells you how supremely important Miles Davis was and is to Jazz heritage.
After meeting Mike Stern in person, and doing a brief interview for our publication, I can safely he is one of the most quirkiest, happy-go-lucky musicians I have ever met. He has taken the inner-child to a totally new level and kept the joy of performing and the joy of jazz rooted in an unbreakable foundation.