Mike Stern trips back to top form at Ronnie Scott’s

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"Awesome!'' "That's great!" "Thank you so much". Mike Stern's bonhomie and charm, while signing CDs and trying to respond to 50 people all apparently talking to him at the same time, wasn't only the sign of a generous down-to-earth guy; it also signified that the former Miles Davis/Brecker Brothers guitarist was just delighted to be back on the road. Eighteen months ago he broke both arms badly on the eve of a European tour, after falling in the street in his native New York, while carrying his guitar and gear from his apartment to a waiting taxi. His intended destination of the airport, and a joint tour with saxophonist Bill Evans, turned into the nearest hospital and a long layoff to recover. Such were his injuries that it appeared that this kind of strenuous schedule might never be possible for him again. But despite having to glue his plectrum to his right hand because of nerve damage, Stern was in scintillating form.

Sharing top billing with Stern was revered Chick Corea Elektric Band drummer Dave Weckl, who played with subtlety and thunderous power. He performed a series of duets playing only with his hands, showing a rare dexterity and listening ability as he captured and anticipated Stern and saxophonist Bob Malach's accents and phrases. At this point, bassist Tom Kennedy came to the fore with a Jaco-esque duet of mind-blowing chops, impeccably timed bebop quotes (Dizzy's 'Salt Peanuts', Monk's 'Rhythm-a-Ning') and wah-wah pedal humour. The latter briefly got Stern dancing – showing at least that his hips were still OK. In fact, the band gave off a happy vibe all night, visibly and audibly appreciating each other's work.

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The show had opened with Don Grolnick's 'Nothing Personal' – an adrenalin-fuelled minor blues that goes through the gears. First played by Michael Brecker with Stern on tour in the late 1980s, this was Weckl's more latinised take on the tune. It was also classic Stern solo territory, the guitarist beginning fleet-fingered but subdued, gradually ramping it up until he ripped out wild sustains and power riffs, played so fast and accurately many of the Ronnie's patrons were up on their feet. The brooding funk of 'Avenue B' from his 2004 album, These Times, followed, with plenty of scope for Kennedy's lavish fills, Weckl's pushes and prods and another scorching Stern solo. Malach brought rich tone and melodic contrast often to the latter stages or reprise of tracks, not trying to compete with Stern in the power stakes but altering the soundscape with precise note and phrase choices, plus the odd harmonic screech.

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One surprise was Stern's decision to sing, bringing a Richard Bona-like air to one lilting mid-tempo tune and added emotion to his beautiful new ballad 'I Believe You'. 'Trip', the title track of the new CD – a reference to the fall and his journey of rehab – was peak Stern: intricate, chromatic, fast bebop sax and guitar head, thunderous riffing and volcanic rhythm. And there was an unexpected encore too: Jimi Hendrix's Red House, gutsily sung by Stern with air-ripping guitar breaks. It was an apt choice considering his recent travails: "That's all right baby, I still got my guitar. Look out now ..."

Excellent support was given to the main set by the Laurence Cottle Quartet. Cottle is one of the UK's top bassists with quite a body of composed work for film and TV in addition to virtuosic playing. Here, his group presented inventive and authentic versions of classics like Marcus Miller's 'Maputo' and Herbie Hancock's 'Watermelon Man', but truly took off with a great take on Kenny Garrett's 'Wayne's Thang', with brilliant, humorous interplay between Cottle and the creative, fresh-sounding drummer Frank Tontoh. Would have been great to see the second set.

– Adam McCulloch
Photos by Carl Hyde