Mike Stern could just as easily have called his muscular, warm-hearted, quartet “the fusion jazz all-stars”. The guitarist’s biography intertwines with those of his sidemen, and stretches back through the likes of The Brecker Brothers to early 1980s Miles Davis. Bassist Chris Minh Doky and drummer Dave Weckl are equal-status bandleaders, and even the least well-known, saxophonist Bob Malach, has chalked up credits with Stevie Wonder and Madonna.
Not surprisingly, Stern’s two sets oozed expertise and control, and the band left the essential fusion formula untouched – episodic themes, long solos and lots of fancy footwork. But Stern’s obvious relish for all things guitar, new songs from his album Big Neighbourhood and his band’s eye for detail gave established practices a fresh turn and made for a cracking gig.
Both sets opened with twisty themes that gave way to a soft-centred middle and closed with a bang. Stern established tempo and mood – scrubby rhythm guitar to start the first set, a gospel riff the second – Minh Doky added a broken line and Weckl a bustle of beats. With pulse established, sax and guitar delivered the hard-edged, close-argued chromatics of high-tech fusion, modulated to a swirly bridge and then returned to base in a blur of notes.
The first set’s follow-on reflected Stern’s time with Richard Bona – world music inflections and Stern’s husky falsetto following the lines of his guitar. Thereafter the mood remained downbeat, with the classical structures of a hymnal ballad. But it was back to basics for the pounding riff and maelstrom of beats of the no-nonsense finale.
The harder-edged second set rocked between funky blues and frantic bebop, and there were equally complex structures that needed a master to negotiate. And there was a wistful ballad highlight with Stern gently strumming over descending bass.
But the gig centred on well-planned, subtly orchestrated solos that were intensely focused even at their most serene. Each player was equally featured and each intrigued whether cascading over the blues or negotiating the structure of a labyrinthine original. The encore, a late Miles Davis classic, “Jean Pierre”, was given a Bo Diddley-ish twist. Short, tense and climactic, it too got an ovation.