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The Graham Weekly Album Review #1351

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Mike Stern: These Times
by George Graham

(ESC Records 4911 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 1/14/2004)

In recent years, Billboard magazine, in compiling their sales charts by genre, have been running two charts for jazz. One is just called "jazz" and supposedly pertains to traditional acoustically instrumented music, though the top of the charts has been almost entirely taken up by vocalists. The other sales chart is called "Contemporary Jazz," in which everything from the elevator music of Kenny G to the musical explorations of Béla Fleck and Pat Metheny are lumped. It's a rather broad category, and covers what we long-time fans have called jazz-rock fusion since the 1970s, when some talented jazz musicians, inspired by the electric explorations of Miles Davis, took up electric guitars, synthesizers and the like, and often combined a rock sensibility with the musical and instrumental sophistication of jazz.

There's not as much of the original fusion style being made as there used to be, but the scene has not gone away, and each year, a handful of worthwhile recordings are made, many by veteran artists in the field. This week, we have an excellent example of the latter: Mike Stern, whose new CD is called These Times.

Guitarist Mike Stern, who turned 50 last year, took up the guitar at age 12, and was inspired by blues and rock players like B.B. King and Eric Clapton. He said he did not get serious about the instrument until he enrolled in the Berklee College of Music in 1971. Not long after finishing up at Berklee, he landed his first big gig, with the help of one of his teachers, Pat Metheny. In 1976, Stern joined Blood, Sweat and Tears, who in the 1960s were the first group to popularize the combination of jazz and rock, and stayed for two years. Later, he joined drummer Billy Cobham's group, and then in 1981, was hired by the legendary father of fusion, Miles Davis, in whose band Stern played for two years and four albums, including Miles' hit recording The Man with the Horn.

Stern continued to rack up his fusion credentials through stints with David Sanborn, the late Jaco Pastorius, and a re-formed early 1990s edition of the Brecker Brothers. Stern has been releasing solo recordings since his 1986 debut called Upside Downside, most of them attracting first-rate players, such as Michael Brecker, Dennis Chambers, Peter Erskine, and the late Bob Berg.

These Times is Stern's tenth solo release, and his first for the German-based label ESC Records, which has been specializing in what I suppose could be called "classic" style fusion. Last year, we reviewed an excellent CD on the label by saxophonoist Bill Evans.

These Times turns out to be one of Stern's best, if not his very best recording under his own name. It features first-rate material, and an eclectic array of intriguing guests, including quite prominently, African-born Richard Bona, bassist, vocalist and current percussionist with the Pat Metheny Group; banjo virtuoso Béla Fleck; bassists Will Lee, and Victor Wooten of the Flecktones; saxophonist Kenny Garrett, and Turkish percussionist Arto Tunçboyaciyan, known for his work with the group Oregon and the Paul Winter Consort. Stern is also re-joined by long-time colleagues Jim Beard on keyboards and Vinnie Colaiuta on drums. The result is a satisfying recording that balances electric energy with a wide-ranging mix of influences -- from African to funk to New Orleans -- all held together with faultless musicianship. Stern plays his usual electric guitar with his own distinctive sound that is easy to recognize even after just a few notes, and he employs the guest musicians well, with each track having a somewhat different sound to take advantage of the available players.

The lengthy, nearly 70-minute CD begins with a track that is in fairly familiar territory for Stern fans. Chatter combines a passel of influences from a vaguely New Orleans flavored rhythmic groove to some of the angular melodic and harmonic turns that are a signature of this style of fusion. <<>>

The first piece with Richard Bona's bass and vocals is called Silver Lining, and has a sound that can at times hint at work of the pioneering fusion band Weather Report, of which Bona was a member for a time. Again, the influences span a spectrum, ranging from Gospel to African to rocky. <<>>

Béla Fleck appears on the piece called I Know You. The banjo man provides an interesting texture to the laid-back, somewhat atmospheric piece, though he does not step out front with a solo. Bona is also prominent, with his distinctive vocals as well as his tasteful bass playing. <<>>

Taking a decidedly rockier direction is Street Rhyme, which features Will Lee on bass. There are some wordless vocals, but here they are provided by Elizabeth Kontomanou. Appearing on sax, and throwing in some R&B influence is Bob Malach. <<>>

One of the more musically intriguing tracks is Avenue B, which is a slow, bluesy piece that can evoke images of a dark street somewhere in the city at night. Stern's guitar adds just the right touch to make the mood vaguely sinister at times. <<>>

Stern and company get jazzier in a piece that pays tribute to Stern's long-time friend saxophonist Bob Berg, who was killed in a car accident in a snowstorm in late 2002, not long before this CD was recorded early last year. The piece is called Remember, and it's the kind of fast angular piece that would be right up Berg's musical street. Stern's guitar solo cooks, taking on a distinctive sound, while the saxophonist is Bob Franceschini. <<>>

Another musically fascinating piece is Mirage, featuring bassist Will Lee and saxophonist Franceschini, with a prominent role for percussionist Tunçboyaciyan. The piece has the multifaceted, almost symphonic approach to musical sections reminiscent of the Pat Metheny Group's larger works. <<>>

The CD goes out in the full-funk mode, with a track called Last One Down. Stern and company sound as if they are thoroughly enjoying themselves. Providing the bass is Victor Wooten of the Flecktones, no slouch at a funk groove. <<>>

Veteran jazz-rock fusion guitarist Mike Stern has made one of the best CDs of his career with These Times. The combination of first rate musicianship, wide-ranging influences, blue-chip guest musicians, and excellent original material provides one with a reminder of how good the jazz-rock fusion scene can be in the 21st Century.

Our grade for sound quality is an "A." Everything is well recorded. Stern's guitar, especially, has a lot of sonic interest and often assumes a kind of three-dimensional quality. And the dynamic range, the difference between loud and soft passages, by current standards, is respectable.

If you want to raise the hackles of a died-in-the-wool jazz musician, just start talking about so-called "smooth jazz" which dominates the "contemporary jazz" charts. Mike Stern's brand of multi-faceted, often energetic fusion is also music that gets lumped into the "contemporary jazz" charts, but it is light years from the saccharine department store background music that gets called "smooth jazz." While this brand of energetic, musically substantial jazz-rock fusion has evolved since its start in the 1970s, Mike Stern and his colleagues remain true to the principles, while making satisfying new music.

(c) Copyright 2004 George D. Graham. All rights reseved.
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