Mike Stern Band at Ronnie Scott’s, London

In a group with wife Leni, Dennis Chambers, Hadrien Feraud and Bob Franceschini, Stern again proved that he doesn't always turn it up to 11

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Mike Stern. Photo © Brian Payne

Perhaps mistaking a distortion pedal for a genre, some time in the early 80s a well-known critic for a leading British liberal broadsheet dismissed Mike Stern as another rock guitarist in Miles Davis’s band. Stern was in London playing with Davis as the trumpeter’s career was revived with a new set of players. Anyone who listened knew that Stern incorporated bebop lines into his overdriven solos, and those who read about him in Downbeat and such knew that Jim Hall was on his playlist. Like his Miles bandmate John Scofield, Stern, by blending rock and bop lines, was one of the handful of true jazz-rock guitarists that came to the fore in the 1980s.

The same range and eclecticism was evident in the first house at Ronnie’s on 16 May, expressed most clearly in the opening number, where Stern’s wife, the guitarist Leni Stern, played the West African ngoni on a piece that sounded like one of Sting’s minor-key laments. Elsewhere, Mike often played reflective intros, exercised a soft, fleet touch with no distortion, just his trademark chorus and delay, and featured whole numbers that were as restrained as 1950s or 1960s Miles Davis at his coolest.

The bruising Stern (he once had a blues called Bruze) hadn’t disappeared by any means, and the second number, Out Of The Blue (one of the few pieces whose name was announced), showed the rocked-out Stern at his best. This was muscle music, seeming to chime perfectly with the well-toned frame of bassist Hadrien Feraud. It was a much modified blues with extensions, substitutions and half-time passages, although its main riff seemed to echo the familiar – namely, Davis’s Milestones. The fluttering, clean, boppish lines from Stern’s guitar eventually gave way to something sterner as he hit the loud pedal and built climax on climax over the 12-bar. His vocabulary and licks are by now very familiar, but they are immediately identifiable, and as he showed tonight he is still able to stack up the personal clichés of decades to make a creative drama. The rest of the band had their say, too. Substantial solos from tenorist Bob Franchesini, bassist Feraud, and Leni (now on Stratocaster) had me wondering if this 75-minute set was going to feature no more than three extended numbers.

In fact, there were six more pieces. The next, the last to be named aside from the encore, was KT, from the 2006 album Who Let The Cats Out? It started quietly before building up to a rocked-out section in which Franchesini, a fluent exponent of the Trane-to-Brecker style, was rather overshadowed by the volume. The next piece reminded more than any so far of the affinity between Stern and Pat Metheny, foregrounding the delay and chorus sound over a world-flavoured backdrop. For me this was a first, as Stern took the mike. I’d never heard him sing, but here he was, vocalising wordlessly and convincingly, rather as Jaco Pastorius did in similar contexts.

Next came perhaps the outstanding number of the set, a piece of suppressed menace relying on a muted bass riff over an urgent 16th-note chick-a-chick à la Tony Williams from Dennis Chambers. One might have expected thematic development but there was none. Rather, the action was in the solos, the lighter textures allowing Franchesini to stand out far better and get just recognition from the audience. It became clear that this piece was probably a son of In A Silent Way/It’s About That Time, but without the gloves-off breakout of Miles Davis’s 1969 minor masterpiece.

There was a segue into a kind of country ballad before what should have been the closing number, an uptempo bop-rocker. Earlier, Stern couldn’t name KT until, it seemed, Leni, glancing at the pad on her music stand, reminded him. But musically, nobody dropped a beat all set – or at least not intentionally. Chambers, towards the end of this piece, cracked up the audience by laying down a monstrous broken-beat cross-rhythm that the band, somehow, managed to negotiate without collapse.

We’d waited for the last-number announcement but it seemed Stern was focused on playing. The bop-rocker piece ended to name-checks and keen applause as he realised time was up and cut to the encore without wasting time off stage. It was back to his youth with Hendrix’s Red House. Blues singing may the easiest kind to fake, but he did it with a skill and conviction well above a guitar virtuoso’s call of duty. Stern’s now 71, but moments after the music ended he was in the foyer signing CDs, that characteristic boyish grin stretching from ear to ear.

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Mike Stern Band featuring Stern (elg); Dennis Chambers (d); Leni Stern (g); Hadrien Feraud (elb); Bob Franceschini (ts). Ronnie Scott’s, London, first house, 16 May 2024.