I have to start by confessing that I’m not normally a big fan of Mike Stern’s writing, even though he usually has at least 1-2 great tunes (like the burner “Mood Swings” and the lyrical “Little Shoes”) on each record. But his latest CD “Trip” is an example of how adversity in a person’s life can sometimes push them to develop in directions that they might not have normally.
If you’re not familiar with the horrendous accident he had in NYC in the summer of 2016, the basics are that he got hit by a cab at a cross walk leaving him with two broken arms and nerve damage in his right hand that prevented him from even holding a pick. He had taken to literally some how gluing a pick to his hand and was gigging, and I thought that was just the most amazingly courageous thing I had heard a musician do, so when the pre-release of “Trip” came out, I ordered a signed copy on Amazon.
I found that not only had he gotten back almost all of his picking chops, he had also really developed his writing to a much higher level. Apparently, the name “Trip” has multiple applications here: A “trip” or journey, a “trip” as a musician will use it meaning a life experience” and even a “trip” as in a stumble that could lead you into one of the former meanings. As Stern described it,”sometimes you have some bad stuff that’ll happen to you, but you kind of get through it and you realize that everybody has this stuff — good trips and bad trips. But you just gotta keep trying, you gotta get up and keep going as soon as you can, which I was able to do. I had to figure out a way to play. I don’t know what I’d do if I couldn’t play music. If you really want something bad enough, sometimes you have to fight for it; you find a way to make it happen. And now I have friends who I trust who tell me that they wouldn’t have noticed any difference in my playing if I hadn’t told them what happened to me.”
For his “comeback record” after the accident, Mike wrote a number of very originally voiced compositions that have both strong melodies and harmony as well as being great showcases for everyone on the records chops, an also a couple of “heads over changes” using the chord progressions for some established standards as inspiration.
The title track “Trip” starts off as classic Stern, a funky guitar line over a groove, but then he takes that develops it into a lot more with a section that takes very cool twists and turns harmonically. Besides a great solo from Stern that shows you that you don’t have to worry about his chops at all, tenor sax player Bob Franceschini shows you that he’s the guy you might want to follow when you are really missing Michael Brecker.
“Blueprint” goes all mirky and Miles with Randy Brecker’s muted trumpet doubling the opening melody with Mike’s guitar. Another well thought out chord progression, this one must be really fun to play in a late night setting.
The band blows abstract together to wind into the very cool head of “Half Crazy”, a bop head written over “I Got Rhythm Changes”. This will be one that a lot of guitar players will learn to take to jam sessions around the world, and follows in John Scofield’s tradition of doing one of these kind of tunes on most every record for a number of years. Franceschini follows Stern’s very strong choruses with his own kind of burn, and then Jim Beard throws a little chromatic craziness out until everyone comes back to play the shout head out. Great to hear Lenny White on drums on this one as well.
“Screws” goes back to the introspective funkiness with the Miles “quartal harmony” chromatic based melody, and then Stern again delivers another melodic relief alternate section. Wallace Roney provides the Miles vibe here on trumpet, with Stern screaming chorus soaked long notes around him on the way back to the quirky melody.
Mike switches to nylon string guitar for “Gone”, a very beautiful and romantic ballad. I have to think that this has got to go a really long way for you when you are a guitar player married to another guitar player, and his solo here especially is really lyrically and heartfelt. There’s no overt show of his speed ever, just a really fantastic extremely well crafted solo.
“Whatchamacalllit” is sort of like the premier “Stern chromatic head”, sort of like the “Mood Swings” of the record, with a great melodic B section as the perfect relief for it. The sax and keyboards accent all the perfect melodic points through the whole melody, and then Stern comes up with the well developed solo on a funk tune that he’s known for.
Mike changes gears again to the intimate and happy with “Emilia”, a sort of South African type infectious vocal melody that sounds like something you might expect on a Yellowjackets record. Mike and Gio Moretti provide the vocals with his wife Leni Stern playing ghoni. This song will stay with you through your day, and the hopeful soaring melody would be a great thing to wake up to. Arto Tuncboyaciyan’s percussion sound great and keep the ethnic vibe going through out.
“Hope For That” is his odd meter sort of Indian sounding melody on the record, and it’s very melodic and hip as well. Again, he develops this into a lyrical melody in 4/4 as the perfect relief to the the main section. His solo uses an octave pedal giving an octave up harmony for a little different flavor.
“I Believe You” is a sort of a semi-country medium ballad which is well placed as the “and now for something completely different” track positioned at the 3/4 way through the record point. He delivers a great and sensitive clean with chorus solo that is bluesy and poignant classic Stern.
“Scotch Tape and Glue” is probably named for what Mike had felt was holding his life together while recovering from his injuries. It uses the chord progression for “Green Dolphin Street” and is another one that I can see a lot of guitar players learning. His solo on this tune is a great example on how to play a great “rock-jazz solo with bends” over a standard type tune. Franceschini burns this one on tenor sax as well, with a cool drum solo from Lenny White before the head comes back.
Guess what tune “B Train” is based on? Yup, Stern takes his leave of us with the last track based on “Take The A Train”. It’s at a very thoughtful sort of affair at first with Teymur Phell’s bass staying in 2, and then starts walking when Mike shifts to double time in his solo. Jim Beard plays a really abstract and hip solo ending with some quirky seconds before the return to the head.
So, overall just really great writing here as well as playing that shows that we will have Mike Stern around for a long time to come. I also should say that Stern has really taken it upon himself to handle the business side of his records as well, and so I am going to post the direct link to his store so you can get the CD directly from him with no middle men taking a cut, something I hope lots of people will do: http://myiesstore.com/mikestern/
Oct. 21, 2017.