Mike Stern – Odds or Evens (1991)

The words “jazz fusion” have become a sort of sneering code phrase for crappy instrumental music, but once upon a time, the genre actually seemed to hold a lot of promise. There was some genuine cross-pollination happening between the brightest minds of rock and jazz, and when it worked, the results could be pretty exciting. (See: Davis, Miles.) Unfortunately, as fusion grew legs, the real moneymakers in the genre turned out to be guys like Bob James and Chuck Mangione — musicians who could play, certainly, but didn’t seem to have any real artistic reason for doing so.

Mike Stern is a guy who’s been there pretty much from the beginning and has actual cred on both sides of the aisle: He cut his teeth on a journeyman stint for Blood, Sweat & Tears before joining up with Billy Cobham and then Miles Davis. While making a name for himself in Davis’ band, and through side projects with Jaco Pastorious, David Sanborn, and Steps Ahead, he started his solo career. Odds or Evens, released in 1991, is his fifth album, and still my favorite (he released his twelfth, These Times, last year).

Stern’s music has all the requisite fusion touches that scream “dentist’s office” and may even conjure up brief, terrible flashes of smooth jazz FM for you, but I think he’s better than that. He was schooled at Berklee, so he knows how to get what he wants out of the guitar, but he’s also got a real melodic gift as a songwriter. Though his albums are smooth, there’s some muscle beneath the surface; think of the best moments by urban jazz outfits like The Brecker Brothers (who Stern has also played with) and you’ll get an idea. I liken the overall feel to an updated version of the New York session mafia who played on so many great albums in the 1970s. (I’m thinking of guys like Richard Tee, Steve Gadd, and David Sanborn — and I’m totally aware of the fact that Sanborn has his own fusion crimes to answer for.)

Anyway, he’s one of my favorite guitarists, and you can call me crazy, but I think “Keys” (download) is a great song for a sunny Friday afternoon, and “If You Say So” (download) is perfect for vodka tonics when the sun goes down. Jim Beard’s production on this record is stellar; not only is Stern’s tone clear and bright, front and center, but I honestly don’t think Dennis Chambers’ drums have ever sounded so clean.