Mike Stern

Who Let the Cats Out?

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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.

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