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Jazz Review

Stern Quartet Shows Off Its High-Speed Virtuosity

May 07, 1999|DON HECKMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

You can say this about the group that guitarist Mike Stern has brought to Catalina Bar & Grill: It's not your father's bebop band. It is, instead, a vision of contemporary jazz as unrelenting, untrammeled improvisation.

In Wednesday night's opening set, the focus was centered squarely on Stern for virtually the entire sequence of material. And almost everything he played had the feeling of music in a fast-forward mode. Only on one ballad-like tune did he slow down somewhat, revealing a sense of harmonic color and emotional moderation that was rarely present in the other numbers.

That's not to fault Stern, who is an extraordinary technician, capable of executing the double- and quadruple-time segments that generally brought the loudest shouts of encouragement from the nearly full-house crowd. But virtuosity has its limits, especially when it is not balanced by a more expansive range of creative elements. And the problem was intensified by the fact that Stern's partner in the front line, tenor saxophonist Bob Malach, was similarly driven toward high-speed note production. As with Stern, Malach was an impressive player, articulating his finger-busting lines with extraordinary skill. But the rapidity of his improvising simply underscored the overall feeling of musical speed for its own sake.

Interestingly, Dennis Chambers, a drummer capable of bombastic playing, offered the most creatively intriguing soloing of the set. His drum feature in the closing number was a thoughtful balancing of musical elements. Although it was executed with his remarkable mastery of complex rhythmic layering, it also unfolded in a series of shifting patterns, filled with musical contrasts and energized by foot-tapping rhythms.

In fact, the Stern quartet as a whole (which also includes bassist Lincoln Goines) would have benefited from a similarly thoughtful approach to its music. As good as it is, this is a band that needs to contrast its exceptional ability with more receptivity to the length and breadth of musical expression.

* The Mike Stern Quartet at Catalina Bar & Grill through Sunday. 1640 N. Cahuenga Blvd., (213) 466-2210. $18 cover tonight and Saturday at 8:30 p.m. and Sunday at 7 p.m.; $16 cover tonight, Saturday at 10:30 p.m. and Sunday at 9 p.m. Two-drink minimum.

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