Premier jazz guitarist joins forces with a string of stellar musicians
Mike Stern, one of the most recognized and celebrated guitarists of his generation, releases his Heads Up International worldwide debut album, Who Let the Cats Out? (HUCD 3115), on August 15, 2006. On Stern's thirteenth release as a leader, the award winning four-time GRAMMY nominee continues to blur the boundaries between jazz, funk, blues and rock with eleven unique originals.
"This record is a return to more instrumental playing, more blowing," says Stern. "In some ways it's straight ahead, but filtered through my rock and blues influences. I'm still interested in incorporating vocals, so I wanted Richard Bona to sing on my record. I composed the tunes thinking about which musicians would work best for each track. It seemed organic, and I think worked out well."
Who Let the Cats Out? was recorded in January 2006 and features a stunning lineup including bassists Richard Bona (who handles vocals on two tracks), Anthony Jackson, Meshell Ndegeocello, Chris Minh Doky and Victor Wooten, trumpeter Roy Hargrove, saxophonists Bob Franceschini and Bob Malach, drummers Dave Weckl and Kim Thompson, harmonica player Gregoire Maret, and keyboardist/producer Jim Beard.
"I've always wanted to work with Meshell Ndegeocello and Kim Thompson," Stern says. "Meshell is a very special musician and Kim is really a phenomenon. They're both so musical. Of course, playing with great musicians like Roy Hargrove, Jim Beard, Dave Weckl, Gregoire Maret and all the rest of these guys is always amazing."
The album title is a double entendre, according to Stern. "Leni, my wife, loves cats," he explains. "We've got four cats, and you know how cats can get. They're always running around and checking stuff out - they're always playing. The title fits the music, too. When we made this album there was a really playful vibe. I love when musicians have fun with the music, when they play from the heart and when they get room to do what they do best."
It isn't surprising that Stern spent time playing with Miles Davis. Like the legendary trumpeter's best work, one never knows what to expect from a new Stern release. Who Let the Cats Out? offers a range of memorable melodies with plenty of dynamic playing by the guitar hero and crew. The album ranges from bluesy, powerful funk ("Tumble Home," "Roll with It") and lots of dynamic interplay ("KT," "Texas") to tightly-packed new jazz ("Good Question," "Leni Goes Shopping") and gentle, heartfelt ballads ("We're with You," "All You Need").
Songs like "Language" are long enough to allow the music to develop, with each musician taking a turn in the conversation, while it's nearly impossible to resist tapping your feet to the beat of the title track. All the while, Stern weaves in and out of the group's sound with ample confidence, always playing within the music and maintaining his instantly recognizable voice on his instrument. The album closes with the gradually rising fury of "Blue Runway."
Born on January 10, 1953, in Boston, MA, Stern got his start as a guitar player with Blood, Sweat & Tears at the age of 22. He then toured with Billy Cobham for a year, and it was at one of the legendary drummer's gigs in New York City that Miles Davis first heard Stern. After moving to New York City, he was recruited by Davis to play a key role in his celebrated comeback band of 1981. From 1983 to 1984, he toured with Jaco Pastorius' Word of Mouth band and in 1985 returned to Davis' lineup for a second tour of duty that lasted close to a year. In the summer of 1986, Stern went out on the road with David Sanborn and later joined an electrified edition of Steps Ahead. Stern made his debut on Atlantic Records in 1986 with Upside Downside. From 1986 through 1988, he was a member of Michael Brecker's quintet and later joined a reunited Brecker Brothers Band, appearing on 1992's Return of the Brecker Brothers.
Stern's acclaimed 1993 release, Standards (And Other Songs), led to him being named Best Jazz Guitarist of the Year by the readers and critics of Guitar Player magazine. He followed that up with 1994's Is What It Is and 1996's Between The Lines, both of which received GRAMMY nominations. In 1997, Stern recorded Give And Take, and won the Orville W. Gibson Award for Best Jazz Guitarist that year. Stern's next release was a six-string summit meeting with colleagues Bill Frisell and John Scofield that was appropriately titled Play. Voices (2001), his first foray into vocal music, earned Stern his third GRAMMY nomination. He released These Times for the ESC label in 2003.
"I've been very fortunate to have played with lots of great musicians like Joe Henderson, Miles, Jaco Pastorius, Mike Brecker and Dave Sanborn, just to name a few," says Stern. "It seems to me what they all have in common is that they're wide open to so many different kinds of music, and no matter what they play they put their heart and soul in it."
Regardless of Who Let the Cats Out?, Stern's Heads Up debut is another outstanding album from this innovative, highly accomplished and incredibly versatile guitarist. He is, indeed, as one writer put it, "one of the true guitar greats of his generation."
On his previous two outings, 2001's Voices and 2003's These Times, the three-time Grammy nominated guitarist-composer-bandleader explored some new territory in the buoyantly uplifting, world music-influenced vocal music he recorded with the great Cameroonian bassist and singer Richard Bona, the beautifully exotic vocalist Elizabeth Kontomanou and Armenian percussionist-vocalist Arto Tuncboyaciyan.
On Who Let The Cats Out?, his 13th as a leader, Stern injects some brash new energy into the mix with valuable input from a fresh cast of characters, including the exciting young drummer Kim Thompson, bassist and pop-jazz-funk enigma Meshell Ndegeocello, harmonica phenomena Gregoire Maret and jazz trumpet star Roy Hargrove. Along with longtime colleagues like legendary drummer Dave Weckl and the brilliant keyboardist Jim Beard (producer here and on six previous Stern recordings) and more recent collaborators in tenor saxophonist Bob Franceschini (a member of Stern's touring band for the past five years) and a gang of formidable virtuoso bassists in Bona, Victor Wooten, Anthony Jackson and Chris Mihn Doky, Stern unleashes his distinctive brand of bop 'n' roll with several intriguing twists along the way.
Like on his previous 12 albums, Stern dazzles with his uncanny linear facility here, blowing with horn-like legato phrasing on uptempo swingers. On ballads he exercises the sublime walking-on-eggshells finesse of a Jim Hall along with a decidedly lyrical touch that goes directly to the heart of listeners. Throw in some slamming funk full of bluesy, toe-curling string bends, add a few Monkish heads played in tight unison with a burning tenor sax player on the front line, stir in a couple nods to jazz standards, and top it off with his exceptionally soulful time feel and you've got the recipe for what has made Stern one of the true jazz guitar giants over the past 20 years.
The challenge this time out for Mike was adapting new material to new players. "I wanted to reach for some new stuff, and this was fun for me," says the former Miles Davis sideman who has also toured and recorded with Jaco Pastorius, David Sanborn, Steps Ahead and Michael Brecker. "These are players that I'm into -- either people that I'm currently playing with or have always wanted to play with, in the case of Roy and Meshell."
Stern recruited Hargrove after having jammed with the trumpeter at a jazz festival in Sweden. "He sat in with my band and we did 'Jean Pierre' (a signature tune from the Miles Davis comeback band of the early '80s) and we did a blues, and he just played his ass off. I always dug Roy's playing and definitely wanted to get him on this session."
Hargrove blows with typical post-bop authority on the bristling title track and also appears with Ndegeocello on the slow-grooving funk of "KT," on which he alternately plays with muted restraint and searing open horn abandon. Meshell lays down sparse, almost subliminal bass lines underneath this relaxed, misterioso groover, then hooks up with drummer Weckl on the mournful, blues-drenched "Texas."
"Meshell really lit it up," says Stern of the celebrated bassist. "She is not like a jazz player in a certain way, but she really goes for the vibe of a piece and brings such a cool thing that is very much her own."
Stern is equally impressed with Thompson, who at age 25 has shown great promise playing with the likes of Kenny Barron, Mark Murphy and Wallace Roney and gigging regularly with Mike over the last two years. "She's really a phenomenal musician, she's got her own sound, and it's fun playing with her," he says. "She kind of reminds me of Terri Lyne (Carrington) in that she has so much great stuff she plays from the heart. She can funk her ass off, lay down a blues shuffle and has a great swing conception for straight ahead. And she can play straight rock 'n' roll, Hendrix-type grooves. Plus, she's a lot cuter than Dennis Chambers, as much as I love him."
This potent crew opens with the dynamic minor blues "Tumble Home," which shifts moods from an opening funk statement to a burning swing section underscored by Thompson's flexible, interactive instincts. Bassist Doky, who has toured recently in Europe with Stern and also appeared on Voices, adds another level of depth to the groove on the funk section and walks forcefully through the swing section with deep upright tones. By the 4:20 mark, Mike kicks on the distortion box, taking his solo to the stratosphere. Franceschini follows with a burning tenor solo. "Bob is an incredible saxophone player who I think is really underrated," says Mike. "I play with tenor players all the time and he's very much got his own style, his own voice. I love playing with him and we've developed a tight relationship on the bandstand over the past five years."
"KT" (named for Kim Thompson, who has clearly become another favorite of Mike's) is an atmospheric piece shaped by the drummer's sly, laid back funk groove. "Kim shines on this track and throughout the whole record," says Stern. "I'm really proud to be featuring her with me, in my touring band and on this record, because I think she's just gonna be one of the greats." Stern opens his solo on "KT" with some subdued, slinky blues statements, taking his time before launching into a raucous, Hendrix-like section capped by a nasty distortion-fueled crescendo. Hargrove follows with a bold, open horn trumpet solo at the 5:00 mark, adding harmonic spice to this simmering gumbo.
"Good Question," an uptempo romp based on "I Got Rhythm" changes, opens with an energetic blast from the propulsive rhythm tandem of Weckl and Bona. The buoyant piece carries a vaguely Islands flavored feel in the head before resolving to the open blowing section, which highlights Stern's fluent bop chops and Bona's remarkable scatting technique in unison with his virtuostic, Jacoesque facility on the electric bass. "I wanted to get Richard's scatting on a tune because I've never heard him do that on a record yet," says Stern. "He does that every so often live when we tour, and it's always amazing to witness. Plus, as a player he's got such a great jazz sensibility. He's got the ability to walk on the electric bass where it sounds halfway between a Hammond organ and an upright bass." Weckl also contributes mightily here with his masterfully precise, polyrhythmic approach to the kit. "All I can say about Dave Weckl is...he's awesome."
The briskly melodic "Language" showcases Richard's affecting falsetto vocals (overdubbed as a vocal choir) alongside Stern's own singing guitar lines. Franceschini kicks in a robust tenor solo at the tag of this uplifting piece.
An emotional highpoint on Who Let The Cats Out? is reached on Stern's poignant and reflective ballad "We're With You," on which the guitarist exercises soulful restraint on nylon string acoustic guitar. Underscored by lush string orchestration from Beard's synth, this elegiac offering stands as Stern's most profoundly moving statement in his 20-year recording career. As Stern explains, the piece carries a dual dedication -- to his longtime colleague and close friend Michael Brecker, who has been locked in a life-and-death struggle with myelodysplastic syndrome (MDS), and to saxophonist and current bandmate Franceschini, who lost his wife Antonella to heart failure this year. "It's about coming together around those in need of emotional support in times of distress. With the whole thing that's going on with Mike Brecker and his health, so many people are pulling together to rally around him and basically say, 'We're with you.' And it's very much the same thing that happened when Bob's wife died very suddenly and very tragically while he was on the road with me at the end of this last tour. The whole band was hugging him when he got the news. We were all there for him in support. It was just another example of how people pull together when life gets rough, which it tends to do. But thank God for the human spirit because it gets people through tough times."
"Leni Goes Shopping" is a humorous reference to his wife, renowned singer-songwriter-guitarist Leni Stern. "Leni's my main inspiration," Mike says. Stern solos with clever intelligence on this Monkish tune, quoting from his own written melody and from the jazz standard "I Hear A Rhapsody," on which this tune was based. Thompson and Doky have a beautiful hookup here and Beard adds an outstanding piano solo to the swinging proceedings. "I really think Jim Beard is a genius," says Stern, "as a producer, as a composer and, of course, as a player."
"Roll With It" is a hip hop flavored number fueled by Kim's slickly syncopated backbeat and Victor Wooten's inimitably funky bass groove. Mike sneaks some nasty, slinky lines into the mix on top of Beard's funky clavinet and saxophonist Bob Malach adds an urgent tenor solo. Wooten then engages in some spirited call-and-response with Stern on this funky vehicle. "We did it quickly and left it real loose, so it's got that kind of feel good vibe," says Mike. "It ain't Stravinsky, but it wasn't supposed to be. Victor plays his ass off on it and Kim puts a kind of New Orleans spin on that one. She's got some Idris Muhammad stuff going on here."
"Texas" is an earthy, atmospheric blues that pairs Weckl and Ndegeocello in a rare hookup and features the expressive harmonica playing of Gregoire Maret. Weckl fuels the track with understated grace. "Weckl came in without rehearsal and played everything almost first take, and he was really loose with it," says Stern. "And to me, the looser he gets the better. I love when he plays behind a soloist and just develops stuff, as he does here."
"Who Let The Cats Out?" is a triumphant blast of surging swing energy provided by Thompson's sizzling ride cymbal work and Doky's insistently walking basslines. An unadulterated blowing vehicle with a challenging boppish head, it allows both Stern and Hargrove to aggressively strut their stuff, culminating in an exhilarating exchange of eights as the piece heads out on a blazing note.
"All You Need" is a soulful, lyrical number featuring Bona's warm, affecting falsetto vocals on top of Beard's gospel flavored piano and organ work. "Richard is definitely who I had in mind when I wrote this piece a while ago," says Stern, who adds his own singing guitar lines here. And the collection closes on a rousing note with "Blue Runway," which is paced by the natural hookup of drummer Weckl and bassist Jackson, a rhythm tandem that goes back 25 years. "Anthony is an amazing innovator on his instrument," says Stern. "He's got his own sound and he plays with so much soul." This minor key lament opens in a subdued mode but gradually builds to a slamming crescendo that triggers one of Mike's most vicious fretboard excursions since his classic "Fat Time" solo with Miles.
That was back in 1981. A dozen albums later, Stern is still killing after all these years.
-- Bill Milkowski
Bill Milkowski is a regular contributor to Jazz Times and Jazziz magazines. He is also the author of "JACO: The Extraordinary and Tragic Life of Jaco Pastorius" (Backbeat Books)