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Mike Stern live in Washington DC

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Last night, I caught Mike Stern at Blues Alley. The backing band was comprised of Richard Bona on vocals and bass, Dennis Chambers on drums and Bob Franceschini on tenor sax.

I’ve been looking forwards to this show for some time. I was not disappointed. I had seen Bona play before as a side man to Pat Metheny. All I have to say is what an idiot Metheny must have been to have wasted such an unbelievably talented musician like Bona the way he did.

I spent almost the entirety of the show with a big ol’ smile on my face. There was a font of positive energy flowing from all the members of the band that didn’t let up for the whole set. They all had a very relaxed enjoyment about them, cracking jokes, goofing through a Rolling Stones tune (and then turning it into Stanley Clarke’s School Days just for grins). Unlike most of other shows I have seen, Chambers occasionally departed from his normal bored/chewing gum look that he normally adopts for a much more engaged persona, openly laughing and smiling as well as showing passion and intensity during his solos.

The opening two numbers had every member of the band taking a solo. Stern took an empty stage solo a few songs later. One of the things that I really like about Mike’s playing is both his restraint and his expressiveness. Many people compare Stern to Metheny (and I can see why; they tend to produce a similar voicing in their playing). A major distinction that I would draw between them is that Pat has a tendency to overplay, as if to try and prove how great a player he is. Mike holds back, playing as many notes as are needed and no more. Which is not to say that he can’t fly around. I just think that Stern gets it the space between the notes is just as important as the notes themselves.

Stern has a history of surrounding himself with highly accomplished musicians; tonight’s show thoroughly kept in the same vein. Chambers is one of the best drummers in the business today and Bona is an incandescently hot up and comer. To be honest, I can’t really tell how good Franceschini is, not being a big sax guy and all.

From a technique point of view, Chambers and Bona pretty much held a clinic (which is not to say that Stern or Franceschini didn’t, just that I’m a bass player with roots as a drummer, so that’s where my focus is). Bona primarily plays fingerstyle, frequently utilizing all four fingers (but keeping each note clear and distinct) either in a clear articulation or in a rake. His occasional thumping showed Bona popping with his thumb as well as his first two fingers. Bona’s playing is extremely clean. I absolutely cannot wait to catch him on his own.

Chambers laid in the background of the music, but never dropping control of the groove. Dennis also showed off his brush technique several times. Unlike so many drummers that I have heard, his brushing is infused with passion and power. During his third solo of the set, Chambers reprised a solo technique (from the previous Stern show I caught); he kept his hands at the same tempo and meter, and then began alternate between speeding up and slowing down either the entire drumline or only specific parts of it while maintaining the groove and meter of the song. What’s left of the drummer in me was stunned.

Some photos from this show can be found here. I would highly recommend making the trip to catch Bona play any chance you get. Anytime that Chambers plays in a jazz club (particularly a smaller one), it’s worth the cost of admission. This marks only the second time that I have seen Stern play, but there will be a third.

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