Mike Stern
Sandrine Lee/Courtesy photo
Mike Stern

Legendary sound

Fusion guitarist Mike Stern to perform in quintet setting at Vermont Jazz Center

The Vermont Jazz Center presents one of the greatest fusion guitarists in the history of the style. On Saturday, March 16, at 7:30 p.m., six-time Grammy nominee Mike Stern will perform with his wife, Leni Stern, on guitar, accompanied by Bob Franceschini on saxophone, Noam Tanzer on bass, and Juan Chiavassa on drums.

Using the vocabulary of jazz, rock, fusion, funk, New Orleans music, and African music, Stern's masterful and grooving command of his instrument conveys a sense of joy that uplifts audiences and astounds fellow musicians.

At 71, Stern is a living legend who continues to tour the world, performing with vigor and compelling younger bandmates like Tanzer and Chiavassa to exceed their own expectations of themselves.

Whether playing slow, funky grooves or breakneck tempos (check out his version of Sonny Rollins' "Oleo" with John Patitucci and Jack DeJohnette), Stern is always in control, effortlessly playing melodic lines that telepathically anticipate the ideas of his fellow musicians.

Stern's expertise was developed over 50 years of nonstop performing, beginning when he was scooped up by Blood, Sweat & Tears while still a student at Berklee College of Music in Boston. Stern's musical excellence and productivity are manifestations of his curiosity, his positive attitude, his humble spirit, and his desire to pay it forward.

In a recent interview with Mike and Leni posted on YouTube by Berklee, the pair spoke about the years they spent practicing and encouraging fellow musicians and students to join them. Their curiosity and engagement with others who share their passion has been a driving force that sustains them and gives their lives purpose.

After three years with Blood, Sweat & Tears, Mike Stern was hired by the fusion drummer Billy Cobham. He then joined Miles Davis for two years and toured with bassist Jaco Pastorius. In the mid-1980s, Stern began touring and recording as a leader, forming lifelong alliances with David Sanborn, Dennis Chambers, Jim Beard, Richard Bona, Steps Ahead, and the Brecker Brothers.

To date, Stern has released more than 20 albums as a leader, six of which have been nominated for Grammy awards, and has appeared as a sideman or co-leader on an estimated 500 recordings.

A friend of Attila Zoller, the founder of the Vermont Jazz Center, who died in 1998, Stern appeared on a 2015 tribute album dedicated to Zoller, Memories of Attila, and contributed to the liner notes of Zoller's final record.

Along with his six Grammy nominations, Stern received a Certified Legend award from Guitar Player magazine in 2012; he appeared on DownBeat magazine's list of "75 Great Guitarists" in 2009; and in 2007 he received the Miles Davis Award at the Festival International de Jazz de Montréal.

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Leni Stern has released 22 recordings as a leader, and Guitar Player magazine named her one of the "50 Most Sensational Female Guitarists of All Time." In the 1970s, she moved from Munich, Germany, to Boston to study composition at Berklee, where she met Mike. They fell in love, and they were married in 1980. Their partnership has been a musically fruitful one, inspiring for both.

"Of all the things I've learned from Mike," Leni says on her website, "the most important was how to integrate rock and blues with jazz in that soulful American style - as well as how to adapt the guitar to playing horn-like improvisation."

Mike's style has also been influenced by Leni's deep connection to Africa and African music. She has traveled and studied extensively in Mali and Senegal, spending months at a time touring and performing with artists such as the celebrated singer-songwriter Salif Keita.

Leni told the interviewer from Berklee that she initially decided to travel to Africa because she had heard that was where the concept of swing music originated. Since then she has visited the continent numerous times, and the music she encountered there has influenced her playing style. She also learned to play n'goni, a "rhythm harp" of West Africa.

"I've always been drawn to the sound of the n'goni, as well as to the kora, a similarly harp-like West African instrument," she said. "I love the warm, plucking quality of their untempered sound, and the gently driving rhythm that they provide."

Leni Stern's music has taken her all over the world. She was selected as a U.S. Cultural Ambassador on a 2014 tour of Nicaragua, and artist-in-residence at Nepal's Jazzmandu in 2015. She has released 22 recordings as a leader and played alongside many greats.

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Come listen to Mike Stern, check out his legendary sound, and be amazed by his technical ability, his heart, and his connection to the blues.

Stern's sound has evolved into an often-copied aesthetic that serves as an important reference for geeky guitarists who have followed in his footsteps. But nobody can truly copy Mike Stern - he is the original, a consummate musician who illuminates jazz fusion with dynamics, energy and brilliance.

In-person tickets are offered on a sliding fee scale from $25 to $60 per person at vtjazz.org.

Tickets, including for educational groups at a discount, are also available by contacting Elsa Borrero ([email protected], or 802-254-9088, ext. 1). Also contact her to arrange support for audience members who need mobility assistance.

The online streaming of this concert will be offered free, but donations are welcome at vtjazz.org. There will be no Facebook Live access to this concert; the livestream will occur simultaneously with the show, and it will not remain on the VJC website.

Eugene Uman is director of the Vermont Jazz Center. The Commons' Deeper Dive column gives artists, arts organizations, and other nonprofits elbow room to write in first person and/or be unabashedly opinionated, passionate, and analytical about their own creative work and events.

This Arts column was submitted to The Commons.

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