It has been 15 years since I have listened to Mike Stern’s performance at Regatta Bar in Boston while I was a student. My schoolmate Emir Işılay, with whom I had gone to this concert with, had recommended this musician to me back then and had said “You will only laugh at Dennis Chambers after a point!”. That evening Mike Stern was accompanied by drummer Dennis Chambers, and if I remember correctly, Hammond player Larry Goldings. That was the first time I was listening to Stern and despite the fact that his style was jazz-rock-fusion, which wasn’t my favorite, I liked his dynamic and original music, which had its foundations in classy harmonics and blues. He possessed a pleasant and solid guitar tone, and a unique talent for composition (The effects of Berklee, the music school Stern had studied at during the beginning of the 1970s, can still be felt in his composition style; the fact that the forms of his pieces are as strict as A, B, C and the presence of more than one type of rhythm in the same piece, the frequent use of blues elements etc.) Dennis Chambers, on the other hand, transformed into a ball of fire at the end of the evening, and he might have even caused some young drummers to give up on music altogether. I had thought this back then: This music isn’t similar to jazz I know in the standard sense, and what’s more, the musicians can play in styles that approach rock, funk, and even pop. This means that they are making an acceptable, all around and balanced kind of music. Rock guitarists, jazz pianists, and even pop music lovers enjoy listening to this music being performed live (Miles Davis was the first one to achieve such a balance).
I didn’t pay much attention to Mike Stern after this experience, until I saw him with Richard Bona in a YouTube video a few years ago. Stern was playing the guitar with drummer Dennis Chambers, bassist Richard Bona and saxophone player Bob Franceschini in this video. Dennis Chambers was providing a solid drive with his brushes to Stern who was surfing on Bona’s flowing bass walk. Bona’s tone and Stern’s smooth tone were in perfect harmony and the live recording was also good. This music sounded more pleasant to me compared to his high frequency jazz-rock pieces with a lot of distortion. I watched a lot of Mike Stern videos on the internet since then.
I went to Zorlu Center on the 3rd of November for the first concert of Mike Stern’s Europe Tour with these thoughts in mind. I saw bassist Alper Yılmaz and drummer Volkan Öktem sitting just a little ahead of me. I should mention that Zorlu Center’s Drama Stage is considerably smaller than its Main Stage, but I think it is a perfect stage for jazz concerts. The reason for this is that there usually is a big gap, both in space and height, between the stage and the audience in bigger theater halls. In this room, on the other hand, the musicians or actors and actresses on the stage are much more closer to their audiences. The sound is acoustic and its quality is lower than the Main Stage for the audience, but seeing how relaxed and happy the musicians are on the stage signals that sound on the stage is arranged well.
I understood that Mike Stern had returned to the stages after a physical illness that lasted for about four months (both his shoulders were broken!) from Dave Weckl’s explanation mid-concert. This event was actually announced previously on his own website:
As you may have heard, Mike had an accident in July where he broke both of his shoulders – the humerus bones on each side to be exact!
Mike is feeling much better now and will embark on a tour with Dave Weckl, Bob Malach, and Tom Kennedy this November!
Mike is grateful to everyone who reached out during a difficult time. He looks forward to seeing many of you on the road!
From what I understand, the tour wasn’t finalized until the last minute and Mike Stern was only able to perform by wearing a special apparatus on his hand. This sacrifice must have affected his bandmates so much that they especially thanked him for it during the concert.
Stern was accompanied by incredibly talented musicians Dave Weckl on the drums, Tom Kennedy on the bass and Bob Malach on the saxophone. For the first piece of the concert he had picked Nothing Personal, a dynamic Don Grolnick composition which is a minor modal blues. The seriousness of his physical ailment became apparent from the flaws in his unique “lines” during his first solo in this piece. There weren’t much of the “smooth lines” I wrote about in the beginning of this article. However, Mike Stern’s experience carried him through this first piece of his 19-city tour, despite the small hiccups during his first solo. All band members performed solos during this long piece with swing and bossanova parts, and they realized that the concert would be a great one after they heard the enthusiastic applause of the audience.
Stern and his band established a warm relationship with the audience, and their second piece was Avenue B, a composition by Mike Stern. This piece drew the audience in completely with its incredible melodic and harmonic structure, and its atmospheric mood.
The third piece was another of Stern’s compositions and had an African melodic theme. Mike Stern repeated the melodies he was playing with the guitar with his vocals. Tall and thin saxophonist Bob Malach performed a swanky solo using blues elements.
Dave Weckl accompanied Mike Stern’s melody and solo by playing the snare drum and toms with his hands for the next part of the concert and formed a pleasant rhythm (Mike Stern often forms duos within his bands during the concerts to color up the performance, and also increases his concentration level this way).
Dave Weckl grabbed the microphone at this point in order to explain about Stern’s illness, as I mentioned before, and mentioned that they picked Istanbul as the starting point of their tour because they have all happily been in this city before (all four musicians have been to Istanbul during various occasions). These words made the music lovers who filled the venue happy, as could be expected, and we all applauded. Mike Stern also thanked the audience for their support at this point.
The band said the rest of the concert would be more like a jam session and this lead to a little virtuosity show put forth by Weckl and Kennedy. They performed a tight and musical interpretation of Chromazone, which is one of Stern’s most famous and dynamic pieces. The audience gave the band a standing ovation, and they accepted to play one last piece as encore. Mike Stern got on the stage like a blues singer and sang blues! (His blues performance was clearly influenced by B.B. King and Hendrix). The band was called back to the stage for a second encore, and they performed a funk-fusion piece called The Chicken, saying that this would be the first time they are performing this piece live and this brought the two hour performance to an end.
Stern met music lovers in the foyer after the concert as he always does, and gave autographs and took photos with them.
Stern is known to be a productive and modest musician. He directed the concert great despite the pain he must have been in and didn’t disappoint those who wanted to meet him. It is a known fact among musicians that Stern has had financial and emotional problems when he was using drugs, but has spent an incredible energy to get clean and back on his feet and that he has achieved that.