Stern gives a guitar clinic
Reviewed December 2009
By Mike Stern
Heads Up International: 2009
To hear sound clips or learn more about this release, Turbula recommends viewing its Amazon.com entry.
Mike Stern has earned a reputation as one of the leading jazz guitarists, having worked with Miles Davis, Jaco Pastorius and others, and having been a solo performer for over 20 years. His ability to play straight ahead and fusion jazz, hard rock and nearly everything in between sets him apart. His playing on a single tune can sound like two different players, sometimes three. His new disc is "Big Neighborhood."
Stern has a roster of guest artists aboard, most of them well-known jazz session men like keyboardist Jim Beard, horn player Randy Brecker, and a long list of others. Rock guitarists Steve Vai and Eric Johnson are also featured, with Vai on the opener and title cut. This track is basically a nearly 8-minute lead guitar highlight reel, with Vai finding in Stern a shredder who can stay with him, or close, as they parry on the upper register with fusion scales and fretboard tricks.
Things slow down just a bit as the next cut, "Sixth Street." Johnson, a more sedate but smooth and talented player, lays out legato figures that other guitarists hear in their heads but can't play, and is joined by Stern for some nice licks of his own.
Stern takes over and it is time for some jazz with "Reach" and "Song for Pepper," and a bop tune, "Coupe de Ville." He can play horn licks as well as any guitarist out there, stepping on the gas when he wants and never repeating.
One thing about Stern that seems a bit of a carryover from his fusion work: he sometimes likes to step on a fuzz pedal in the middle of a straight-ahead jazz solo and start to transform it and the song into a fusion experience (Steve Morse does the same with rockabilly into metal with the Dixie Dregs). This is okay as long as it doesn't start sounding like a demo for the fuzz pedal.
For "Moroccan Roll," along with a great title Vai is back, full speed. Johnson is briefly heard also, but Vai is out to make people forget about Alan Holdsworth on this track as he overplays the scope of the music and blows the other two out of the frame. "Long Time Gone" is blues-based jazz; after the frenzy of "Moroccan," Stern’s clean lines are almost a relief, then he segues into one of his not infrequent "morph-into heavy" moments on the disc, with overdriven riffs and Stern on bottleneck solos that are superfluous. The best cuts here are the ones that are either all rock or all jazz, like "Song For Pepper," "Check One" and "That's All It Is." Stern closes out with a lively walking blues, "Hope You Don't Mind," with some tasty doubling down on the backbeat to sneak in some very nice scales.
"Big Neighborhood" is a guitar clinic. The eclectic styles are a plus, and for the most part the guest artists add to the experience but the show here is Stern and he is a master.
Review by Frank Kocher, a longtime San Diego resident, musician, music collector and frequent contributor to The San Diego Troubadour.