Mike and Leni Stern light up Ronnie Scott’s for EFG London Jazz Festival late set thriller

What an unexpected pleasure to see Mike Stern exchanging guitar riffs with his wife Leni. This was just one surprise from a gig that also saw Stern share the stage with fellow Miles Davis bass alumni Darryl Jones.

Back in 1982 the BBC televised a live Miles gig from Hammersmith Odeon, a truly exciting event for any jazz fan – a chance to witness a real-life legend. We knew we were not going to be hearing ‘If I Were a Bell’ or ‘Freedie Freeloader’ – but the playing and sight of long-haired guitarist Mike Stern, alongside Marcus Miller and saxophonist Bill Evans, was still a surprise. He had a formidable technique but with more overt hard-rock references than many anticipated. Once again Miles had got ahead of the game.

Since those heady days, Stern has written so many exciting hard-bopping heads that it can be quite challenging to distinguish them all. Through his solos he delivers long skittering lines at an impossible speed, but also with surprising delicacy. At times on this gig it was like following the POV footage of a champion skier accelerating away down a vertiginous slope, flying over every bump and hollow, getting airborne, but then landing back with perfect grace. Bassist Jones, who played with Miles in the early 1980s (before joining Sting’s band), the man behind the deep grooves on albums like Decoy, gave brilliant, bouncy support with flamboyant flourishes. For quite a while Jones has been the Rolling Stones’ bassist, but he wasn’t alone in the super-group stakes. Drummer Keith Carlock is Steely Dan’s pick behind the kit, and his incredibly powerful yet precise playing brought to mind Steve Gadd’s killer solo on Aja.

Mike Stern CH2

Bob Malach on tenor sax, complemented Stern’s exuberance by playing with space, digging into the rhythm section. He has an eloquent darker sound with sudden growls and screams of pure old time R&B amid more Brecker-esque modern influences. He again has a star-studded CV: Horace Silver, Stanley Clarke, Joe Zawinul, Stevie Wonder… He joined Stern in jazz-nerd solo-quote trading: ingenious insertions of fragments of ‘Seven Steps to Heaven’ (Feldman/Davis), ‘Witch Hunt’ (Shorter) and a few show standards brought smiles of recognition from band members and audience.

There were plenty of other smiles too: this was a group that clearly gets on and overcomes a gruelling tour schedule with humour and camaraderie. And despite having to get an 8am flight to Paris, they were happy to talk to well-wishers long after the set was over.

Leni Stern, a superb guitarist and fine singer whose voice has been described as somehow “blending Marlene Dietrich and Billie Holiday” (!), was not billed to appear but made telling contributions. Her interest in the music of Mali was in evidence on the set’s opener; a simple, emotive tune featuring her on Ngoni, a Malian string-instrument, and lit up by a warm, unfussy vocal. She was to return later for a supremely funky guitar solo on Miles’s ‘Jean-Pierre’ (over a deliciously dirty Jones/Carlock groove) and a rocking rendition of Hendrix’s ‘Red House’, sung by Mike between blistering solo breaks.

Standout tracks from the rest of the set included a burning ‘Out of the Blue’ from 2012’s All Over the Place; and the darker, mid-tempo ‘You Never Know’ from 1996’s Between the Lines. There were also tunes from Stern’s most recent CD, Trip, recorded once he’d recovered from breaking both arms in an accident just two-and-a-half years ago. Recovery is not yet total… he has some tendon damage and still has to play with his plectrum glued to his finger. Not that you’d notice in his playing.

– Adam McCulloch

– Photos by Carl Hyde

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