Mike Stern has recuperated from a horrible injury that left him with two broken arms and significant nerve damage, he was left with significant nerve damage in his right hand that prevented him from doing the simplest tasks, including holding a pick. Following a second surgery, he gained more control of his nerve-damaged picking hand and subsequently devised a scheme where he literally glues his right-hand fingers to the pick, strengthening his grip and allowing him to more fully realize his signature speed, precision and fluidity informed mainly by bebop and the blues.
Feeling sufficiently fortified, Stern and his stellar crew of sidemen — many of whom go back with him to the ‘80s — went into Spin Studio in Long Island City between January and March of 2017 to record his 17th album as a leader. His sly, self-deprecating sense of humor comes across in the title of the album, "Trip," as well as on individual tracks like “Screws” (he initially had 11 screws put into his arm following his first surgery) and “Scotch Tape and Glue” (his current method for holding onto the pick). Produced by pianist-keyboardist Jim Beard, "Trip" features a number of longstanding colleagues including trumpeters Randy Brecker and Wallace Roney, saxophonists Bob Franceschini and Bill Evans, bassists Victor Wooten and Tom Kennedy, and drummers Dave Weckl, Dennis Chambers and Lenny White.
The title track is a driving composition with a bit of funk and some fervent tenor sax from Franceschini, with Wooten and Chambers providing a tight bottom while Randy Brecker's muted trumpet adds a Miles Davis ambience to "Blueprint." His former Davis colleague Bill Evans adds some staccato tenor sax to open the effervescent "Half Crazy," with some percolating backing from pianist Jim Beard, drummer Lenny White and bassist Tyrell Phell to support Stern's horn-like likes. The afore-mentioned "Screws has the same rhythm trio along with Wallace Roney's trumpet on an performance that starts playful and reflective before Stern forcefully solos, following this up with pretty, tender acoustic guitar on "Gone." Then there is the funky fusion of "Whatchacallit," followed by the ebullient, latin-tinged "Emelia," with Stern on acoustic guitar as well as singing (Gio Moratti adds the backing vocal).
"Scotch Tape and Glue," is a spirited high-velocity romp based on the changes to "Green Dolphin Street," while the closing "B Train" is a quirky, mid-tempo contrafact on"Take the At Train,' with Roney muted playing adding to the enjoyment to Stern's own inventive playing. It is a delightful close to a varied recording that is perhaps more impressive knowing what he has had to overcome. Stern is modest about his own playing noting that “Everybody played their asses off on this record," but he certainly is back on top of his game on this excellent recording.
I received from my review copy from Concord. This review originally appeared in the November-December 2017 Jazz & Blues Report (Issue 375). Here is an interview of Mike Stern.