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The Graham Weekly Album Review #1692

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Mike Stern: All Over the Place
by George Graham

(Heads Up 33186 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 7/18/2012)

Jazz rock fusion, which arose in the 1970s, combined the musical improvisation and level of musicianship of jazz with the electric instrumentation of rock. Most of the pioneering players came out of Miles Davis' bands at the time. Back then, it was not hard to tell fusion from more conventional jazz, simply by the instrumentation and very electrified sound. Over the years, the distinction has been getting pretty blurry, as many of the original fusion players tired of all the amplification and went back to acoustic instruments, and other artists like Pat Metheny came up with a whole new sound that was electric but much more subtle than the fuzzed out guitars, and siren-wailing analog synthesizers of fusion's first generation. On the other hand, the so-called "smooth jazz" scene keeps some of the electricity but has taken all the jazz out.

Fusion in the heavily-electrified earlier style is now considered as retro as disco, its contemporary. But interesting fusion with elements of the original style plus the greater sonic subtlety of newer varieties continues to be made by musicians of different generations. This week, we have a new CD by a veteran fusion guitar player that has lots of interesting sonic elements to it, ranging from all-out electric to more contemplative, with some world music elements thrown in. It's Mike Stern, whose CD bears the appropriate title All Over the Place.

Mike Stern certainly has fusion credibility, having been a member of Miles Davis' band in the early 1980s. He has worked with plenty of other artists over the years, and maintained a prominent solo career. He's well-known in the guitar community, having been named a "certified guitar legend" in Guitar Player magazine. All Over the Place is his 15th album as a leader. Known for both his strong electric lead style and his ability to play more subtle jazz, Stern specifically stretches boundaries on this CD, which is a bit of an all-star effort, with numerous special guests and different personnel on each of the 11 original compositions. He again works with keyboard player Jim Beard, who produced this CD. But the range of guests include a number of diverse bassists including Cameroonian bassist and vocalist Richard Bona, another sensation combining bass and singing, Esperanza Spalding, jazz bass legend Charlie Haden, plus the funky electric bassist from the Flecktones band Victor Wooten. There are also several drummers who are featured on various tracks, including Al Foster, with whom Stern played in Miles Davis' band, plus Dave Weckl of the Chick Corea Elektric Band, Keith Carlock and others. The sax players include Chris Potter, who played with Steely Dan, Kenny Garrett, another Miles Davis alumnus, Bob Malach and Bob Franceschini. Even Stern's wife Leni Stern makes a guest appearance, something that is rare for either guitar-playing spouse.

It's a generous hour-and-a-quarter album that features 11 tracks that all allow the gathered players to stretch out. The recording is paced so that there is a healthy variety of sound as the CD moves from one track to the next, another good reason not to deconstuct the album through individual track downloads.

Opening is a piece called A.J. for Anthony Jackson, another of the guest bass players, performing on a contrabass guitar. The track is an interesting composition that alternates between a mellow facet and the more angular, electric sound. Chris Potter is the sax player. <<>>

The world music aspect of the album is highlighted on a piece named Cameroon which is the country from which bassist and vocalist Richard Bona hails. It's not the first time that Stern and Bona have worked together on one of Stern's albums. The piece is a highlight combining as it does the hints of African sounds with the more traditional electric jazz-rock fusion sounds. <<>>

Also showing some global influence is Out of the Blue, which features Leni Stern on an ethnic instrument called the N'Goni Ba. Randy Brecker adds his trumpet to the mix. <<>>

Esperanza Spalding makes her appearance on one of the more contemplative tracks on the CD As Far as We Know. Stern is on nylon-string acoustic guitar, while Jim Beard's keyboards adds to the atmospheric quality. <<>>

One of the things that jazz musicians like to do, going back to the early bebop days of Charlie Parker is to use the chord changes of a standard tune and create a new piece that is quite different. OCD on Mike Stern's All Over the Place is based on Cole Porter's I Love You and the track has more of a straight jazz sound that much of the rest of the album. It's an excellent performance. <<>> Kenny Garrett is the guest saxophonist. <<>>

Stern says that this whole album was essentially recorded in three days with the performances largely live in the studio. But there is one piece where Stern overdubs some guitars, Halfway Home featured some overlaid bluesy slide guitar. <<>> The notable guest on this track is bassist Victor Wooten of Béla Fleck and the Flecktones. <<>>

Bassist Dave Holland makes his one of his appearances on another of the CD's atmospheric ballads, You Never Told Me. Again Stern switches to classical-style acoustic guitar. <<>>

The CD ends with its title track, All Over the Place which like the whole album is interesting enough in diversity to warrant the title. It features another of the prominent bass-player guests, Will Lee. It's pretty high energy, but the sound is tempered by the acoustic piano. <<>>

Veteran jazz-rock fusion guitarist Mike Stern's new CD All Over the Place is a strong recording that shows a good level of musical diversity, drawing on some of the more "old-fashioned" fusion sounds with more contemporary and wider-ranging influences. It's basically an all-star project, with a lot of significant people from the fusion and jazz world making guest appearances. Still, for all the different stylistic and personnel diversity, it's a satisfyingly coherent album, with Stern's always impressive guitar work holding it together, and his compositions proving to be impressive as well. It will also be a boon for guitar fans looking for a good vehicle for Stern's work to be highlighted and out front for much of the time.

Our grade for audio quality is about an "A-minus." The recording has good clarity and freedom from unnecessary studio effects, and some of the dynamics of the performance are captured, but compression is apparent on the louder portions and that washes out the sound, making things sound flat, especially the drums, which lose their impact.

Jazz-rock fusion is still alive in the second decade of the 21st Century, forty years after it got its start. And it's in good creative hands on Mike Stern's new album.

(c) Copyright 2012 George D. Graham. All rights reserved.
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