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Published: 2002/02/25
by Joe Shoemaker

Mike Stern Band With Victor Wooten, Dennis Chambers and Bob Franceschini, Aladdin Theatre, Portland, OR- 2/19

Generally, depending on the act, I am astute enough to purchase tickets well in advance of a given show. On the eve of the Mike Stern Band's performance at the historic Aladdin Theatre in Portland, OR, I was fortunate enough to have purchased one of the mere 40 remaining tickets, just an hour before show time. As it turned out, I would have been terribly disappointed had I been denied the experience.

At first glance at the stage upon entering the venue, I noticed Mike's equipment set-up, one that included the classic Roland Chorus amplifier, used by many a jazz cat guitarist and even keyboardist to evoke that textured and clean fusion sonic soundscape. I refer you to Pat Metheny's overall guitar sound, one that Mike has obviously emulated and for an apparent reason; while at Berklee School of Music in the early 70's Pat was Mike's guitar instructor for a stint. That relationship ultimately led Mike to his inclusion in the famed Blood, Sweat and Tears. More pointedly, though, upon Miles Davis' return to the jazz scene after a five-year hiatus, Mike joined Miles in 1981, as only a select few have, as lead guitarist. With that said, you can just imagine the aptitude for guitar Mike displayed during this rare Portland leg of his tour, promoting the recently released and Grammy nominated album 'Voices.'

Joining Mike this night were a conglomeration of virtuosos, namely saxophonist Bob Franceschini, powerhouse drummer Dennis Chambers and bassist extroardinaire Victor Wooten of Flecktones fame. Auspiciously, I took a seat next to Stephen Canter, who I learned was Pat Metheny's roommate in college and, as well, is host of a widely respected radio show on OPB. He was the MC this night and courteously informed me that Victor had arrived in Portland just hours before show time, rehearsing back stage with Mike for the first time. With a rhythm section of immense talent, coupled with the gorgeous melody of Franceschini's sax blowing, the Mike Stern Band was sure to produce some fine music; this group deserved every moment of reverence the audience could offer.

Mike looks, from a distance, to be a throw back from the eighties, resembling the likeness of a Jeff Beck, dressed in all black, hair just barely covering his eyes. He is tall and upon first stroke of his Fender Telecaster like guitar, one could readily see the great energy Mike pours into his music. The band started with a simple funk groove, Victor reading charts that sat on stage next to him. Eloquently, under Victor's simple yet thick bass groove, both sax and guitar simultaneously unleashed a beautiful melody of notes, ala Pat Metheny on Sounds of Summer Running with Marc Johnson and Bill Frissel. In fact, much of this night could be compared to effervescent effort from the aforementioned album, as Stern's music took on a characteristically contemporary jazz oriented feel, with both straight-ahead jazz and blues/rock flavorings. The second song entitled, "Slow Change," from his Voices album, was equally as emotional, again sax and guitar fusing, concocting a smooth jazziness. Franceschini's delved into an extended solo during this tune, one that seemed quite 'out,' purposely playing notes that didn't exactly match the music's key notes. For sure, he is an extremely talented jazz musician with far reaching ability. Following this extended jam, Mike took liberty to play his electric guitar solo, as band members stood quietly, awaiting his cue. Mike effortlessly displayed his virtuosity, running up and down the fretboard with fluidity many guitarists can only dream to achieve. This interlude fashioned a bit of classical nuance, jazz and fusion, and blues covering at least a 10-minute span of time. The band again started up with a toe-tapping groove, enunciated by the undeniable power with which Dennis Chambers plays drums. He is every aspiring drummer's mentor, whether on paper, on instructional video or live in concert. His swiftness, rapid fills and nearly tortuous cymbal work are truly unrivaled in the drumming world. He has played with nearly everyone of jazz conviction, including the likes of John Scofield. He is a mesmerizing force behind the kit, with earthquake like tendencies while in the midst of a powerful musical moment. And speaking of earthquakes, Victor Wooten also had his time to shine during this first set. I have witnessed Victor on many occasions with various ensembles, defyingly manipulating his basses' fretboard to produce some otherworldly, syncopated sounds. This time proved no different, yet equally as interesting and intense as the other bass solos he has played. Victor has become especially adept at playing the fretboard with both hands, meaning he doesn't pick or pluck the strings, rather he uses an Eddie Van Halen technique of fast guitar trickery. Never have I seen a bass player with as much ingenuity and ardor for his instrument. He left the audience and me especially completely stupefied.

It was clear that Mike was absolutely enthralled with the musicians he chose this night (they often change throughout the tour). His smiles were wide and many times he gave us an elated thumbs up, upon the audience's roars and applause. Stern seems a man of incredible talent, tact, taste and humility. In fact all the musicians this night fit so well together, with all focus on the beauty of the music.

The second set arrived with a similar feel and makeup of the first. Several tunes played during this set were from the Voices album, which merits its Grammy nomination for Best Contemporary Jazz Album, as Mike has choreographed some elegant tunes. I did catch a more vivid glimpse of Pat Metheny's influence on Stern throughout the second set, however. His well-executed jazz riffs, seem to have been inspired by the very particular voicings Metheny conjures. Nonetheless, Stern's compositions involve complicated harmony with the sax, heavy groove from bass and drums, and room for Steve's forte; improvisation. During Stern's second lengthy solo interlude, I noticed Victor nearly grimacing with delight as Stern danced with grace through ultra-complex jazz lines, akin to Bela Fleck and again Pat Metheny.

The show ended with two very bluesy sounding tunes. Stern has obviously studied the likes of Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton, as he demonstrated his prowess for soulful, yet speedy blues execution. The crowd erupted with joy upon hearing the fiery blast from Stern's guitar. For those with a penchant for explosive guitar solos, as I am, I compare Stern to a refined Jimmy Herring, as noted by each guitarist's penchant for fast fingered blues runs. And we all pleaded for more upon the show's end. The encore was equally as potent, with Chambers pounding the skins and cymbals with ferocity, Victor assailing his bass with fluid ease and manner, and Franceschini frolicking through fields of syncopation and sustain. Stern looked like a little kid in a candy store, so pleased with the monumentus event that had just occurred. Their night ending gathering at the front of the stage, replete with sweat, smiles, and bows was the perfect storybook ending to a night of both sumptuous melody and explosive technique.

The Mike Stern Band will continue its tour throughout the states, eventually to perform in Japan for a short while. If the opportunity presents itself, by all means forget your life for a while and experience the exquisite performance that the group will deliver.

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