Without a doubt, the most maligned musical genre of the last century was jazz-rock fusion. To its detractors, this 70s hybrid of jazz chops and rock excess took the worst of both forms and regurgitated a monster of widdly-widdly wankery that was too often all but unbearable.

And then in the 80s they went and added Fairlight synths and Linn drums and Roland Chorus guitars…

Mike Stern was, to many, the jazz-rock guitarist you hated to love. Formerly of horn-rock powerhouse Blood Sweat & Tears, he made us sit up and take notice when he joined Miles Davis on his ‘comeback’ album of 1981, The Man With The Horn. Stern’s processed, chorus/delay sound fitted perfectly with the glassy, synthetic funk of its day. And yet, the fire and propulsion of his playing (with real blues at the heart of his attack) set him ahead of many of his ADHD-fingered contemporaries.

A drug buddy of bass-freak Jaco Pastorius, Stern went through his own drug hell, emerging as a player and musical thinker to watch. His fifteenth album, this year’s All Over The Place, features a dazzling circus of today’s most in-demand players, but is held together by Stern’s vision and truly groovy compositions.

The throwaway title All Over The Place is really not so throwaway – the album features songs written to feature specific players and goes to some piquant African and Latin locales along the way. Opener ‘AJ’ features Anthony Jackson on contrabass guitar. Jackson wahs and pops one of the nastiest bass lines I have heard for a while under the whoops and hollers of solos by Stern and tenor-du-jour Chris Potter.

‘Cameroon’ sets up a high-stepping African highlife strut for West African bassist/vocalist Richard Bona to bass/vocalise around. ‘Out Of The Blue’ glides along on the bass figure of John Coltrane’s hymn ‘A Love Supreme’ which seems to inspire the bejesus out of Randy Brecker who shoots trumpet sparks in his solo.

The ghostly Iberian-flavoured ballad ‘As Far As We Know’ features Grammy-winning bassist Esperanza Spaulding doubling Stern’s gut-string line with her vocal, with a rising passage in the melody that calls to mind the rise in Samuel Barber’s Adagio For Strings. Its porcelain delicacy is booted out of the way by ‘Blues For Al’, a Thelonious-Monkish abstracted blues featuring Miles Davis’s last great drummer Al Foster and another Miles disciple, UK bassist Dave Holland.

Stern’s playing on this blues is full of booze and joy – and this is what has kept his fans right there all the way. In a music that can be overweeningly precious at times, where each note is held up as a pearl, Stern digs in and gives us rough diamonds out of the coal. His obvious joy in getting his mutant Telecaster to squeal, moan and insinuate is in your face.

The guitar is the instrument of the modern musical era. Stern says of the instrument, “The guitar tends to keep you open-minded, because you hear it in so many places. You hear it in rock, in country, in pop, in funk, in classical, you hear it in jazz, you hear it in so many kinds of music that you can immediately identify it on one level or another.”

Over all these years Stern is still excited about the guitar, and it is his joy that keeps us pretty excited too. All Over The Place goes beyond virtuosity to a place where real music can happen.

Published July 2012 on theorangepress.net and August 2102 on jazzandbeyond.com.au

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