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Dan Stern
Vortex, London
John Fordham
The Guardian
5 stars

On his recent debut CD, Traces, the London-born South African saxophonist and composer Dan Stern sounded like a rising star. But, in its mixture of classical music and contemporary jazz (Palestrina and Perotin were part of the repertoire, and New York jazz luminaries Dave Liebman and David Binney were in the band), Traces sounded like it might be a hard act to recreate on the road.

Stern proved otherwise here at the Vortex, and the unexpected drive and attack of what on paper might seem like an eloquent but reflective and structurally preoccupied band was a real surprise. Pianist Robert Mitchell (currently playing more freely and audaciously, yet more explicitly jazzily, than he ever has), reeds virtuoso Julian Siegel, rugged bassist Tom Mason and a devastatingly creative Asaf Sirkis on drums took full advantage of the freedoms Stern offers.

On the delicate Rhapsody in the first half, the classical purity of Stern's sax sound contrasted vividly with Siegel's swoops from airy high figures to crunching low notes on bass clarinet. Synthesis (Stern's titles aren't quite up to the subtlety of his music) was a devilishly tricky two-sax chase with double-taking pauses, after a squawky, wide-interval intro.

After the break, Mitchell thrilled the crowd with a stabbing, percussive, yet free-rolling and Latin-tinged piano solo in the opening piece. The set unfolded through unison horn choruses over bumpy polyrhythms, Coltranesque riff-swapping with Sirkis's gunshot accents, Tim Berne-like interlocking melody patterns, and grooves that stretched out of shape and snapped back. It is rare for improvisational freedom and a composer's vision to coexist so well. Fine soloists will be queuing up to join in.

Vortex Review - Chris Parker

Retaining just one musician from his debut recording Traces (Kvetch Records), drummer Asaf Sirkis (reeds were played on this occasion by Julian Siegel, piano by Robert Mitchell and bass by Tom Mason), saxophonist/composer Dan Stern attracted a largeish crowd (especially for a Monday) to the club to hear his constantly shifting, multi-layered music.
Beginning with a two-tenor front line, but subsequently ringing the changes by pitting his own soprano against Siegel's bass clarinet, or pairing soprano and tenor, Stern successfully showcased not only his ability to produce intriguing, pleasantly restless themes that drew a series of adventurous solos from his sidemen (Mitchell in particular seemed to relish their switchback, nervy quality, producing a number of enjoyably clangorous, dynamically varied, often downright splashy contributions that drew spontaneous smiles of approval from Stern), but also his forthright but considered saxophone playing, which ranged as appropriate between stridently declamatory and broodingly tender.
With Sirkis masterfully controlling the (sometimes considerable) rhythmic subtleties of Stern's pieces, and a skilled band handling their wide-ranging sound palette with grace and aplomb, this was an impressive and absorbing performance from a considerable bandleading/composing talent.

CD reviews

Dan Stern - Traces (Kvetch)
4 stars
John Fordham
The Guardian

4 stars

Any UK jazz musician who can attract the creative American saxophonists Dave Liebman and David Binney to a home-brewed debut album has to have an expressive message. The London-born South African saxophonist and composer Dan Stern can boast classical studies with Alexander Goehr and Robin Holloway, and sax lessons from former Miles virtuoso Liebman himself. The set splits into two suites, one being for a high-class band including Binney, Tim Garland and Gwilym Simcock (with Liebman contributing a US-recorded sax-piano duet), the other being a Stern solo exploration with overdubs, at times reminiscent of John Surman's music. Some of the group music suggests the early 1960s jazz/classical Third Stream, some of it the horn-tapestry sound of Bitches Brew, and some the M-Base rhythm-pattern tradition - crisply underpinned by excellent drummer Asaf Sirkis, and inventively explored by Stern, Binney, and a soaring Garland on soprano on the intricate Eye of the Beholder. Perotin and Palestrina get a look in on Stern's unaccompanied episodes - at times quite spookily sinister. The sweepingly resourceful Stern sounds like a big talent flowering.

Dan Stern - Traces
reviewd by Chris Parker

UK-born to South African parents, saxophonist / clarinettist Dan Stern took lessons from David Liebman after being inspired to take up jazz by hearing Michael Brecker at Ronnie Scott's; the success of this course can be measured on this, his debut album, which features Liebman in addition to a punchy but cohesive band: fellow reeds players David Binney and Tim Garland, pianists Gwilym Simcock and Phil Markowitz, bassist Phil Donkin and drummer Asaf Sirkis.
The album is divided into two sections, the first a five-piece suite, 'Traces', featuring the above players; the second, the six-part 'Mirrors', featuring Stern alone, on overdubbed saxophone and clarinet. The former suite ranges between pleasantly nervy, restless themes and more meditative fare, with intelligently arranged harmonised reed arrangements from which various soloists, chief among them the resourceful and confident Stern himself, emerge where appropriate, all flawlessly driven by the excellent rhythm team of Donkin, Simcock and the superbly responsive Sirkis; the latter, culminating in absorbing arrangements of sacred music by Palestrina and Perotin, showcases the ethereal, haunting sound of Stern's reeds.
Whether in bustling, streamlined yet absorbingly tricksy sextet mode (occasionally reminiscent of some of Binney's recent work) or solo, though, Stern's compositional/arranging strength is impressive throughout this absorbing album ­ clearly a man to watch.