Sunday, February 4, 2001
Stiernberg Swings to His Own Higher Plane
By David Royko
Special to the Tribune
Talking to mandolinist Don Stiernberg about the "swing" craze would be like informing a fish about something called water. Stiernberg has lived and breathed swinging jazz his entire life, and though many of those newly bitten by the bug equate "swing" with well-marketed, pile-driving jump blues, Stiernberg's aesthetic is one of invitation rather than exaggeration. His performance Friday night at the cozy and acoustically inviting Club Jazz in Elgin Community College's Visual and Performing Arts Center allowed listeners a relatively rare opportunity to savor string jazz at its finest.
Stiernberg has been a fixture on the Chicago music scene for two decades, mostly as a sideman and studio musician and in bluegrass settings with bands such as Special Consensus. But when Stiernberg explored the melodic potential of "It Might As Well Be Spring" in his first solo of the evening, it was clear that jazz is the musical world he most naturally inhabits. Though his teacher and mentor was the great jazz picker and comedian Jethro Burns, Stiernberg is no Burns clone. Certainly Stiernberg internalized Burns' techniques and vocabulary, and even if the majority of his repertoire is drawn from the same classic Tin Pan Alley standards that Burns employed, Stiernberg's improvising is a never-ending stream of riveting ideas that are distinctively his own.
Unlike many players who make swing and mainstream jazz their home base, Stiernberg eschews the tendency to lay just behind the beat, prefering instead to ride the front edge of the rhythmic wave set in motion by his exquisite group. Every phrase was imbued with melody, never relying on novelty or flash. And when Stiernberg was playing a ballad, the occasional moments of melancholy could not obscure the sense of joy at the core of his playing.
And it is joy Stiernberg communicated directly to his listeners, whether singing "Stars Fell on Alabama" or waltzing through a bluesy version of "Take Me Out To The Ballgame." While others might make their instruments burn, Stiernberg makes his mandolin laugh.
It was also a pleasant surprise to hear Stiernberg dipping into bebop in the Miles Davis-hued rendition of "Beautiful Love," suggesting that Stiernberg's stylistic choice of swing is just that--a choice based on preference, not limitation.
Stiernberg surrounded himself with a group of musicians that listened and reacted to one another with an intensity that belied the relaxed results. Trumpeter and flugelhornist Art Davis and guitarist Curt Morrison contributed thoughtful solos that contrasted effectively with the leader's, while bassist Jim Cox and drummer Kevin Connelley were flawless in keeping the ensemble fluid at all tempos.
But it was clear that this was Stiernberg's band, and he lead by example, backing up his colleagues with an occasional unexpected chord and inspiring each player by setting the bar high with each one of his own gripping improvisations.
[Tribune photo of Don Stiernberg by John Bartley]