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Playing Between the Lines

Guitarist Mike Stern is still a fusion favorite

By Nicky Baxter

It's not been easy for fusion guitarist Mike Stern to shake the protean shadow of his former mentor and employer, Miles Davis. Chances are had Miles not looked him up, the amply talented Stern might have gone unnoticed. Having gotten his start with jazz-rock aggregate Blood, Sweat and Tears in the early 1970s, Stern eventually developed into a solid exponent of rock-oriented electro-jazz--bop & roll, as one writer aptly described it.

A sort of musically miscegenated stepson to Jimi Hendrix and John Scofield (with whom the Bostonian briefly worked), Stern combines the former's mercurial guitar-star bursts with the latter's unrelenting linearity. By the conclusion of his two-year tenure with Davis in the '80s, Stern had metamorphosed from a merely pedestrian bop/postbop impressionist into an exciting stylist in his own right. We Want Miles and Star People both feature Stern's increasingly confident, aggressive playing. Stern would go on to work with, at various points, Michael and Randy Brecker, and Harvie Swartz; he also recorded with saxophonist Bob Berg. His partnership with the late bassist Jaco Pastorius was, however, his most noteworthy post-Milesian association.

Between the Lines (Atlantic Jazz), the 42-year-old musician's current recording, features gregarious sprints past Charlie Parker land all the way to electro-bop ("Bait Tone Blues"), knotty fusion ("Lose the Suit," "With a Twist"), Crusaders-like pop-jazz ("Sunnyside") and surprisingly lyrical ballad playing ("Wing and a Prayer"). Less successful are Stern's efforts to get funky. "The Vine," in particular, is about as dated as a blaxploitation flick. The album, Stern's third as a leader, isn't bad, though; when he's not trying to get down, Stern demonstrates why some fusion enthusiasts still consider him a top-level guitarist.

Mike Stern performs Friday (April 26) at 10pm at Speakeasy, Agenda Lounge, 399 S. First St., San Jose. Tickets are $8. (408/287-4087)

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From the April 25-May 1, 1996 issue of Metro

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