John Stein’s new double-album “Lifeline” began as a necessary adjustment to a serious health issue, but it has become an acclaimed testament to the guitarist’s multidecade music career. And on Friday night, when Stein and his quartet headline Scullers in Boston to mark “Lifeline’s” release, it will be a tangible reason to celebrate the man’s accomplishments and, most importantly, his recovery.
Stein had just retired from his teaching posts at Berklee College of Music and was looking forward to increasing his schedule of live dates a couple years ago. But something was going wrong with his body, and as his strength declined, it was eventually determined that he had myasthenia gravis, an affliction of the nerves that saps the ability to do much at all. There’s no firm reason why some people get the disease, or what causes it, but modern medicine can treat it effectively. But Stein’s case was so serious he ended up flat on his back in the hospital for two months, and only able to breathe with a ventilator for two weeks. As he battled to survive, Stein knew the disease had sapped the dexterity and strength in his hands so badly he might not play guitar again.
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As Stein was struggling to recover, plans for a new album had to be shelved. But Whaling City Sound owner Neal Weiss had a proposal for him: how about a career retrospective? Stein threw himself into the project as soon as he could, listening and curating 16 of his previous albums to find what worked best. The result is the magnificent “Lifeline,” whose two discs include 72 and 73 minutes of music, spread over 26 cuts, encompassing Stein’s music from 1999 to 2021. It is a stunning collection of music, done in his preferred style of “sophisticated but accessible,” and touching upon many different styles and several different groups of varying size.
“I spent a lot of hours just laying in bed and this project kept me alive creatively,” said Stein from his Jamaica Plain home last week. “It absolutely kept me going when I was in my worst physical state. I didn’t know if I’d ever play guitar again, so a retrospective seemed like a good idea. There’s a lot of variety, a lot of different kinds of music and everything from larger groups to a couple duets.”
Just the beginning of the first disc shows what kind of marvelous variety the set offers. “Up and At ‘Em” is a bright and buoyant 2001 cut featuring Stein trading lines with the late saxophonist David “Fathead” Newman. The second song, “Brazilian Hug,” is a smooth samba from 2020 where the keyboards of Daniel Grajew frame the melody. “Invitation” comes next, a 2009 bit of subtly sizzling heat with Kaito Sato playing keyboards to support Stein. The fourth tune is 2007’s “Hotcakes,” a sprightly swing number where Newman plays flute and Ken Clark’s organ joins in for added texture.
“I hadn’t listened to a lot of this music in a long time,” Stein said. “I get so obsessed with it when I’m recording it, I can’t stop listening to it, so once I finish, that’s it. But this became my soundtrack for all those months I was recovering, when often I had trouble sleeping. I had the headphones on so much I drove my wife crazy. But it was fascinating. I tried to mix tempos, major and minor keys, and try to make it so both discs have a flow. The project kept growing.”
Whaling City Sound committed fully to the project and so the double-CD package is exquisite, with separate introduction/guides to each disc from music writers Bill Milkowski and John Thomas, and comments from many of the musicians themselves, about what it is like playing with Stein and what he means to them. As a summation of a career, it is truly awe inspiring, but the best part is that since Stein has been able to return to performing, it can also just be seen as an appetizer for what he does next.
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“The first time I was out of the hospital, I was weeping because I could barely hold a guitar, let alone play,” Stein said. “I didn’t have strength enough to press down on the strings. One problem when I was ill was breathing, and after I was intubated it took time to build back stamina. I got help with breathing lessons, and also vocal lessons, and I found that understanding vocal phrasing helped me enormously as a guitar player.”
And do not get the impression that Stein is a jazz professor who creates complicated music that you need a master’s degree to enjoy. Before he even studied at Berklee, he spent a decade playing in pop and rock and funk bands in Vermont. His two musical models are guitarists Wes Montgomery and Grant Green, both of whom had crossover pop hits.
“I think of myself as a musician who writes music that is accessible to non-jazz people,” he said. “Jazz can encompass bossa nova, ballads, so many styles. Some people write and go out of their way to be sophisticated. I can’t do that and don’t enjoy it. I want to write music that is so easy to play it almost plays itself. I think of myself as mainstream ‒ that’s the kind of music I like.”
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Stein’s triumphant return to the stage will have some special audience members this weekend, and along with his delectable music, it will also mark a victory for the human spirit. Stein will be fronting bassist Ed Lucey, pianist Jesse Taitt and drummer Mike Connors, and vocalist Cindy Scott will be a guest on several tunes.
“I spent two months in the hospital and some of the nurses and folks from the ICU who cared for me all that time will be coming to Scullers,” Stein said. “The music will be fabulous but for me it’s a celebration I can share with all the people who helped me recover.”
THURSDAY: The bluegrass royalty of The Gibson Brothers visit The Narrows Center. Grace Morrison sings at The Spire Center. Chicks in the Office is the band at The House of Blues. BluDeTiger roars at Royale. Andy Fusco and The UN at The Paradise.
FRIDAY: The 1975 opens a two-night stand at MGM Music Hall. Bees Deluxe jams at City Winery. The DMB Project, a tribute to Dave Matthews, at Soundcheck Studios. Mary Fahl sings at The Spire Center. The Coronas rock The Sinclair. Bombadil harmonizes at Atwood’s Tavern. Dopapod gets down at The Paradise. Jake Scott holds court at Royale. The Airplane Family ‒ former members of Jefferson Airplane & Starship ‒ reprises the “Blows Against the Empire” album at The Narrows Center. Fortunate Youth grooves at Big Night Live. U2’s Bono is at The Orpheum Theatre to unveil and talk about his new book.
SATURDAY: Folk legend Tom Rush lights up The Spire Center. Guitar ace Joe Satriani blasts into The Orpheum Theatre. Turnover rocks Roadrunner. Lookie Lookie’s “bugalu” at Boston Harbor Distillery. Alaska gets real cool at The Paradise. Manel the Island Man brings music of the Azores to The Narrows Center. Cathedral is a Van Halen tribute at Soundcheck Studios.
SUNDAY: The sublime California Honeydrops at Royale. Beth Orton sings at The Crystal Ballroom. Soccer Mommy kicks off at The House of Blues. Duke Robillard’s Trio at Atwood’s Tavern.
MONDAY: DaBaby raps at Big Night Live.
TUESDAY: Arcade Fire rocks MGM Music Hall.
WEDNESDAY: Louisiana bluesman Tab Benoit at The Spire Center. Ani DiFranco rocks Royale.
Where: Scullers, 400 Soldiers Field Road, Boston
When: 7 p.m. Nov. 4
Tickets: $35-$50, with dinner packages also available
Info: 866-777-8932 or scullersjazz.com