REVIEW: Mike Stern Band plus May Inoue at Ronnie Scott's (2018 EFG LJF)

Mike Stern
Publicity Photo by Sandrine Lee

Mike Stern Band plus May Inoue
(Ronnie Scott’s. 24 November 2018. EFG London Jazz Festival. Review by Rob Mallows)

Seeing Mike Stern at Ronnie Scott’s about a decade ago was one of the highlights of my gig-going career. Had things turned out differently in 2016, I – and a packed Ronnie’s crowd – might have been deprived of the chance to see this guitar legend again. Fate chose otherwise.

Following an accident in New York that year, which resulted in two broken shoulders and severe damage to his picking hand, Mike Stern has had – Bionic Man-like – to rebuild both himself and his playing technique; at one point, he resorted to using glue to ensure his pick stayed in place between thumb and finger. A career-ending calamity? Judging from last night, while the physical effects are clearly evident, the impact on the music was negligible.

The good news is he’s still got it. In spades.

The show almost started prematurely, with Stern on stage for at least 15 minutes warming up. When the lights came up, he asked the crowd if there was time for one more tune: “I already gave up all of my shit warming up!” Fortunately, there was plenty more.

This iteration of the Mike Stern Band featured Bob Malach on saxophone – sat down, stage right, looking like a geography master grading papers in between playing – Keith Carlock on drums and Darryl Jones, moonlighting from his regular job as the Rolling Stones' bassist.

For the first track Stern bought on stage his wife Lani Stern, who played a Malian ngoni and sang over Stern’s melody. A rather subdued kick-off, but it was touching to see the smiles and side glances, and the joy the couple got from being on stage together.

As a four-piece, the energy ramped up. Stern seemed genuinely pleased to be back playing at Ronnie Scott’s, given everything that’s happened. He played all night with a beaming smile from beneath his shaggy dog hair. Hs effervescent playing on Out Of The Blue was at times filthy and raucous, then so subtle and quiet that you could see see audience members signal "shush" to others, in case they missed a single note.

On You Never Know, Carlock’s drums stood out; he pounded those suckers relentlessly as the drum tech stood nervously by, stage left, periodically coming on to tighten a cymbal or adjust the high-hat. But the effect was worth it: power that measured on the Richter scale. Jones’ bass tone on the next piece was as clear as a bell and he offered up a taut solo with a punch like a heavyweight boxer. The band had clearly brought out the heavy guns.

At 65, Stern shows no signs of slacking off and his accident seems to have given him a renewed drive to stay at the top of his game. That was clear from the gusto with which he approached this show and the emotional intensity evident in the vocalese on a couple of tracks used to augment his improvisation.

It’s always rewarding to watch a musician at the top of their game and the audience was energised and enraptured throughout. By the end, the house was, well and truly, brought down by this super band.

Support came from a young Japanese guitar sensation May Inoue, in an electric trio with Julian Crampton on bass and Andrew Small on drums.

“No pressure!”, shouted a wag from the audience, when Inoue acknowledged a smiling Mike Stern sitting at the side of the stage, watching him intently. Playing at Ronnie Scott’s was, the young guitarist said, “his dream” since he first picked up a guitar aged six and later listened intently to Mike Stern and other guitarists as he grew up.

He clearly wasn’t overawed, however, and immediately plunged into a sparky, blues-tinged version of Joe Zawinul’s Walk Tall. Inoue’s style is more straightforward than Stern's, without much of the intensity and exploding fireworks colour; but it was technically perfect and effortlessly delivered in a short set by this award-winning Berklee School of Music alum. He delivered cut after cut of contemporary electric jazz guitar, tinged with rockier embellishments, ably supported by a band that offered up some tricky solos alongside precision-engineered rhythms.

Most of the audience were clearly there for the main course rather than Inoue’s jazz hors d’oeuvre, and he demonstrated enough wherewithal and jazz confidence to generate a great response by the end of his sent that suggests he will make a mark globally in years to come.

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