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Who Let the Cats Out?

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Album Review

More than two decades into his solo career, Mike Stern, on his 13th album as a leader, continues to prove why he's earned so many "Best Jazz Guitarist" honors through the years. Stern's skills are undeniable, and new ideas never fail to materialize when he's at work. But what makes Stern stand out from the pack of virtuosic guitar technicians is that he always insists on letting his, and his support team's, abilities serve the music, not vice versa. On Who Let the Cats Out?, Stern and his well-chosen crew spill out lick upon impressive lick, but they never get so carried away with themselves that they lose sight of the tune's purpose and structure. Grandiosity is never a factor here, although there are dozens of occasions to applaud these musicians' chops. Richard Bona, the Cameroonian bassist, has worked with Stern before, but here he is given an expanded role, appearing on four tracks and contributing his falsetto-style, scat-like vocals to three of them: On "All You Need," one of the prettiest tracks on the record, Bona provides an uplifting sensuality. He also shines on "We're with You," a ballad featuring Stern on acoustic guitar. Devoid of pyrotechnics, this song of support to those hurting utilizes synth-derived orchestration and a mournful, quiet tone to bring home its emotionalism. Drummer Dave Weckl — who alternates throughout with the excellent Kim Thompson — is another major pacesetter here: On "Texas," the often-overdriven Weckl restrains himself, his no-frills drums and Me'Shell NdegéOcello's creative bass chasing Stern's skronky slide while Gregoire Maret's harmonica provides the necessary borderland flavor. The title track, a quasi-swing/bop showpiece, finds Stern — peeling out some of his most blazing, how'd-he-do-that? riffs — and trumpet great Roy Hargrove trying to outdo each other and calling it a draw. Stern's soloing throughout the record is, in fact, ceaselessly imaginative: Whether within a total funk exercise like "Roll with It," which borrows Victor Wooten from the Flecktones for bass duties and spotlights sexy sax from Bob Malach, or the moody ballad "KT," on which Stern's guitar escalates in intensity alongside Jim Beard's soulful organ, Stern finds his place within the song's architecture, then rises several levels above what's required of him to present something unexpected and rewardingly original. Only on "Blue Runway," the eight-and-a-half-minute closer, with Anthony Jackson taking over the bass, do the players allow themselves to approach tediousness. Overextending themselves as they shift into hyperdrive, they turn the piece into a jam for its own sake. An anomaly, it doesn't by any means detract from the album's overall quality, though it does allow it to end on a disappointingly self-absorbed note.

Customer Reviews

Oh So Close!

I love Mike Stern. I love his playing and his sense of melody and phrasing. He can blow with anybody. On record (cd) he edits himself well and it always makes for an enjoyable listen. Nothing changes with this album. It is a bit more organic than the last couple of outings and the performances are exemplary, kinda. And this is where it gets a bit dicey. There is an uneven quality here and it is curious as to why this would be. Stern has a passion for great drummers and Kim Thompson no exception. However, she is not transcendent and it becomes noticeable to this fan. Weckl is the most recent in a line of incredible drummers, among them Dennis Chambers and Vinnie Colaiuta. On the tunes with Weckl, everything takes off and upon repeated listenings that same thing happens again and again. Weckl is simply amazing. His sound, his cymbals, his evolved and informed approach prod everyone and everything to some pretty lofty heights. As a drummer I long for that kind of performance on evry song. So does this cd... Solid 4 stars.

Great album and you should see it LIVE!

I have listened to Mike Stern off and on over the years. His guitar tone is so smooth and subtle and he plays so dynamically. He will play soft beautiful melodies, then build it up and rip your ears off with a good shredding that never gets overbearing (like many guitarists) because of how well he phrases each riff, using speed, yet space and time to always even things out. If you are not a big Jazz person but love the blues, you will still love his playing. Mike's style will ease you into the jazz style more while keeping a touch of blues involved to make your ears feel comfortable. Besides, he played with Miles Davis. What else can you say? I went to his show on 3/8/08 in Atlanta. Tom Kennedy and Dave Weckl pushed Mike's music to a new level. The show was just like Mike's playing is; running a wide spectrum of musicality, from soft and subtle, to fast and shredding, and all the sweetness in between. After the show, Mike practically beat the crowd out to the lobby where he was more than happy to talk to fans and sign autographs. He's a master musician and true gentleman. Don't miss his tour!

Good stuff, Man.

I recently had the honor of seeing Mike perform in a very intimate settting at 55 Bar in the Village. Great show, great music, great musicianship. Mike always surrounds himself with stellar talent, and never dissapoints. His angular yet melodic style always keeps things interesting. Thanks for another great effort.


Born: January 10, 1953 in Boston, MA

Genre: Jazz

Years Active: '80s, '90s, '00s, '10s

Recognized as one of the finest electric guitarists among his peers, Mike Stern was born on January 10, 1953, in Boston, Massachusetts, but grew up in Washington, D.C. before returning to Boston to study at the Berklee School of Music. Stern was only 22 when he joined Blood, Sweat & Tears, for whom he played three years before signing on with Billy Cobham's jazz fusion outfit, which led to Stern's big breakthrough when Miles Davis enlisted him as guitarist for Davis' return from a five-year musical...
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Who Let the Cats Out?, Mike Stern
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