It was the week before Christmas when Mike Stern came to Hollywood; the occasion was a five-night engagement at Catalina Bar and Grill, and for the area's countless guitar enthusiasts it was as if the holiday arrived early. Supporting his star packed current release Who Let the Cats Out on Heads Up, the electric guitarist led a streamlined but commensurately stellar quartet featuring saxophonist Bob Franceschini, bassist Victor Wooten and drummer Dennis Chambers.
We took our seats just as the band started, lucky to get one of the two vacant tables left in the room. Stern began a set that would explore many moods and defy critical pigeonholing with a rollicking number in "Tumble Home." A new piece with a head apparently inspired by Jimi Hendrix's later, funk-oriented period, it proved a perfect vehicle for this powerful group. Stern's solo packed in a flurry of blues licks, building to a furious climax that neither held anything back nor quite went too far. Franceschini's turn was no less impressive, as he proved quite capable of blowing fire as well. The rhythm section of Wooten and Chambers didn't so much anchor the music as propel it to often dizzying heights.
With long hair, jeans and a customized Fender Telecaster, Mike Stern could be mistaken for a rock star on stage--Jeff Beck, say, or perhaps Nigel Tufnel. And he does show the influence of some of those famous guitar heroes--Hendrix and Beck certainly, along with the great Chicago blues players and perhaps Dickey Betts in his occasional use of volume strobing techniques. Certainly, he was unafraid to slip in a few power chords amongst the more delicate jazz variety. Yes, Mike Stern plays an unapologetically amplified variety of jazz, as does bassist Victor Wooten. But while there was no shortage of musical pyrotechnics, Stern proved no mere shredder. Several of his songs--"Leni Goes Shopping" comes to mind--were built along clever bop lines, and Wooten and Chambers proved as capable of swinging a tune as well as driving them. Moreover, Stern's ballad playing was gorgeous. One of the evening's great highlights was a quiet unaccompanied piece that held the crowd in rapturous awe for several minutes.
The set ended much as it began, with an improvisation loosely based on Hendrix's "Voodoo Chile (Slight Return)." All four players were given a feature, with Stern and Franceschini showing no let up of intensity after over an hour and a half of playing. But the story here was really the rhythm players. Wooten's solo was not merely virtuosic, but encapsulated a neat history of the last half century of playing for the instrument. Beginning with an extended quote of Larry Graham's memorable line on the Sly and the Family Stone hit "Thank You Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)," Wooten worked up to some expressive tap in the vein of the late Jaco Pastorius, and very cannily included another quote that worked on more than one level. Playing out the melody of "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" was a welcome nod not only to the season but also to Percy Heath, who played the line so memorably with the Modern Jazz Quartet.
Needless to say, Victor Wooten brought the house down. But as much as the audience liked that, they really showed some love to Dennis Chambers. Chambers used every bit of his deluxe kit in a barn burning display of polyrhythmic play and, at times, sheer power. He also showed a mischievous sense of humor as the band re-entered at the end of his feature, playing all around but never quite on beat with the reggae figure Stern and Wooten established. He relented soon enough, however, and the group came together for a few more minutes of inspired jamming to end an evening of adventurous jazz.