Guitarist Mike Stern suffered from a big owie last year. It seems that, while trying to cross a street in Manhattan, he tripped and fell, breaking both of his shoulders in the process. He underwent surgery and reports that “I still have to use glue so I can hold a guitar pick.” While you’re busy trying to figure out just how a jazz-fusion guitarist needs glue to hold a pick, keep in mind Stern is an embodiment of a working musician, and his chosen genre of expertise is famous for its pay-to-play, sink-or-swim business model. Such a setback can really eat into one’s career. Gigs need to be canceled, which sometimes leads to venues blacklisting you in the future. And in a world where most people listen to their music via streaming services, gigging may be your only reliable source of income. Thankfully, Mike Stern, who was 63 at the time of his injury, has made a full recovery and is back to work with an impressive array of professional help. His new album is ironically named Trip.
Apart from the title, Trip makes it sound like nothing ever happened to Stern. At all. In the same way that John McLaughlin and his current Fourth Dimension band sound like a bunch of barnstormers who haven’t hit 40 yet, the powerful performance of Stern and his colleagues coupled with the high quality of the material belie both age and medical condition. Now I’m aware that our very own Steven Spoerl did not care for the writing on Mike Stern’s 2012 All Over the Place, but there’s no way I can sling the same criticism at Trip. The opening title track alone is enough to nullify that. Stern plays the melody in unison with saxophonist Bob Franceschini, and it’s all over the place. The song slinks into a B section where the chords shift from a minor vi to a major IV, and again, Stern and Franceschini drive an even meaner melody down the scale with plenty of sharply punctuated intervals. This guy fell, broke his shoulders, and now needs glue to hold a pick? Are we all sure he wasn’t just replaced with Steve Austin?
Another number that, to me, offsets any concerns about the able-bodiness or strength of the material is a spunky one named “Watchacallit”. This time, the B section brims with even more tension with Franceschini flying high and bassist Tom Kennedy doing little divebombs at the start of each bar. When it’s all put together, it’s truly a moment for you to crank your listening device of choice (in the past, we would say “stereo” right about here). But that’s just two songs. There’s a total of 11, spanning an hour and six minutes. Stern doesn’t use every bar of every number to punch us in the gut. He still goes for the smooth bop (“Emelia”), the funky intersection of Miles Davis and Funkadelic (“Screws”), and the soothing ballad (“I Believe in You” and “Gone”).
No review of Trip would be complete without mentioning the musical pedigree of Mike Stern’s friends. When it comes to drummers, he managed to net Dennis Chambers, Lenny White, and Will Calhoun (yes, that Will Calhoun). Those names alone give you a money-back guarantee that the rhythm section will never, ever falter. But just to be sure, Stern summons Victor Wooten to play bass. Top shelf names like Randy Brecker and Bill Evans, in addition to Franceschini, provide Trip with soulful wind. Pianist Jim Beard pulls double duty as the session pianist.
Normally, I’d wrap this up by saying that Mike Stern is under the process of pulling himself up by his bootstraps and dusting himself off after a major boo-boo. But after listening to Trip over and over again, I’m convinced that he’s beyond that. The straps are up, and the dust has cleared. He’s back, playing and composing just as well as he ever did. Better than he did before the accident, perhaps? You can be the judge of that meaningless hairsplitting exercise because Trip is worth the journey no matter where your expectations may lie.
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