Mike Stern, Dennis Chambers, Richard Bona
It’s a pity “fusion” has become something of a dirty word to jazz fans and a punch line to music-geek generalists, conjuring mental images of mulleted keytar players soloing to their ego’s desire in a glorious blaze of sweat, silk button-ups and chest hair. The almost athletic display of technical facility is, without a doubt, a major tenant of jazz-rock, but the best groups have always included a good dose of drama and melody in their dog-and-pony shows.
During a recent set at Washington, D.C.’s Blues Alley, the Mike Stern Trio featuring drummer Dennis Chambers and bassist Richard Bona unabashedly indulged in the f-word, but with musical, sometimes even beautiful results. There were many moments where chops where presented in clinical, exhibitive ways—this is Stern and Chambers, after all—but the band seemed closer in spirit to jazz-rock’s artful 1970s pioneers than the vain showmen of the 1980s; even if Stern’s recordings remain sonically embroiled in fluorescent ’80s overproduction.
In its adventurous early days, fusion was a well-trained jazz musician’s experiment rather than a rock player’s, and Stern’s style is unadulterated electric bop—“garage bebop” as David R. Adler coined it with precision in his Aug. 2006 JazzTimes cover story. On tunes like “Tumble Home” from Who Let the Cats Out?—an exceptional record undermined by a hokey title and cover art—Stern expelled an index of snaking Bird-like lines throughout his solos, distorting his tone as his choruses crescendoed and relinquishing his bop smarts for freewheeling blues bends and rock licks. Stern’s style moves organically from bop to rock and underscores the fiery, performance-driven correlation between the two schools. He continues to dress his tone with stereo chorus, a habit ’80s peers like John Scofield dropped long ago, so his timbre is something of a relic and a musical anachronism. Regardless, chorus can have a symphonic effect, and it turned Stern’s rubato chord-melody interludes into breathing, swelling orchestrations.
Cameroonian bassist Richard Bona has been Stern’s secret weapon on record and at Manhattan's 55 Bar for a while now, contributing both Jaco-evoking virtuosity and crystalline scats. At Blues Alley, those delicate, syllabic vocals met R&B and pop on Stern’s “All You Need,” which featured highly singable solos from the guitarist and saxophonist Bob Franceschini, whose hard-blowing yet accessible playing here recalled David Sanborn and Michael Brecker at their most commercial-minded. During what was arguably the set highlight, Bona used looping technology to create a one-man Cameroonian choir, layering gorgeous, pitch-perfect harmonies to breathtaking effect. It was a rare instance when technology helped create something spiritual.
As reported in Adler's JT piece, Stern and Bona share a playful, sometimes giddy rapport. At one point, Bona playfully smacked Chambers’ ride cymbal with his hand and Stern answered by striking the drummer’s crash with the headstock of his guitar. That wasn’t the only instance in which Bona and Stern expanded their roles to include “comedian”: Stern quoted Hendrix and the Kinks during one of his solos and Bona mimed a bass solo later, his hands hovering inches away from the fretboard while he hummed the corresponding pitches (Dr. Lonnie Smith has a similar bit where he snake-charms the keys of his B3 while grunting a melody).
As for Chambers, he, like Stern, remains a torch-carrier for the shameless musicianship of ’80s fusion, moving his four limbs independently and forcing one time signature onto another yet somehow forming an unshakable rhythmic background. He—also like Stern—is almost always at the service of the song, and even when he does ham it up, it’s with jazz intelligence rather than rock arrogance. A closing drum solo worked like the most acutely designed fireworks display, beginning with a soft, heady rumble and snowballing into an unyielding panorama of controlled chaos—without a keytar in sight.