Album review: MIKE STERN – JEFF LORBER FUSION – Eleven


Concord [Release date 27.09.19]

Back in the 1990s there was a trend – epitomised by the chameleon-like Jazz FM radio station in the UK – for smooth jazz, a more accessible form of fusion that developed out of US FM radio in the late 1980s.  As with all trends, Jazz FM changed their colours going into the millennium and to a large extent smooth jazz became another niche rather than more mainstream phenomena.

Fast forward to 2019 and completely unawares I dug out a mid-1980s album by Jeff Lorber, looking suitably cool on the cover with the then cool keytar.  That album – Step By Step – was like much fusion, a bit bland in places.  But when it is good it is very good.

As an aside, at the same time, I’d reconnected with David Sanborn (who was regarded by some as one of the main architects of the smooth jazz genre) and I’d direct readers to the album A Change Of Heart (1987) and especially ‘Chicago Song’  for a sample of the very best fusion groove.

The truth is that the blandness of smooth jazz is often only rescued by an incisive (and creative) solo instrumentalist.

Which bring us to this latest offering from two stalwarts, Mike Stern and Jeff Lorber.  Gone is the keytar and a more aggressive funky approach and instead a more laid back soft jazz feel.  It may be considered perfect background music to cleaning your teeth in the morning but, whatever, like that daily routine it’s immaculately conceived and executed from start to finish.

Stern has an easy, fluid style which perfectly complements Lorber’s sympathetic keyboards.  This is well demonstrated on ‘Jones Street’ (a Stern staple dating from the late 1990s) which allows the guitarist  to change his tonal palette for a more impactful mid-section.

Stern has also revived that wonderful piece ‘Slow Change’.  A few months ago, I heard the original version playing in a smart public library and thankfully “Shazam” allowed instant detection.  It still sounds fantastic.  “Tell Me” is another of those instantly appealing pieces that characterised the best smooth jazz.

Lorber’s compositions, including the more thrusty ‘Motor City’, evoke those late-1980s albums but without really breaking sweat.

This is a welcome collaboration for lovers of fusion although perhaps we can hope for future works to include more original material from Stern.  This album allows the uncertain to catch up with the guitarist’s output and a keyboard player worthy of attention even minus that keytar and evidently now minus the poodle perm.  ****

Review by David Randall

Mike Stern and Jeff Lorber  Fusion will be performing in London at 229 on 22nd November

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