I was sitting with Carl, who isn’t a music enthusiast, but who is interested in these music reviews I write, and the strange and wildly varied things I listen to. (“What’s THIS?” is a common question.) I told him that we were listening to Mike Stern’s new CD, Voices, and that it was one of the things I was going to review for PopMatters. When he asked, I made a quick sketch of what I thought of Mike Stern’s recording career, and Carl put it so well in his translation back to me that I’ve taken your time thus far setting up his comment: “Ah. The baseball player who can hit the 500-foot home run but strikes out 200 times.” This may be an unfair analogy, but then it’s frustrating to see such a talented guitar player making such mediocre records. Unfortunately, Voices is no home run.
Mike Stern emerged from the incubator of Boston’s Berklee School of Music in the mid-‘70s, went on to join Miles Davis, and then recorded a string of albums for Atlantic. He has an amazing ear for harmony and is endlessly creative in his somewhat mathematical single-note inventions. And he has an instantly identifiable sound: you know it’s him, even through the signal processing, in a few notes.
While his playing, especially live, can be exhilarating, his CDs are climate-controlled fusion environments that suffocate any brilliance in a penetrating layer of polish. Voices adds some bland world music stock to the formula, making it very difficult indeed to wade through the soup.
While his other recordings suffer for the want of a good (read: radical) producer more than anything else, Voices sounds like it was born in a record company boardroom, an accusation bolstered by the hysterical press release which reads, in small part: “By organically melding his formidable guitar prowess into the fabric of engaging, uplifting vocal tunes, Stern stands poised to bring his own signature six-string voice to a wider audience in much the same way that Carlos Santana introduced himself to contemporary pop audiences with Supernatural.” Yuck. That Santana single was even more disgusting than it sounded because it was made by the same man that made Lotus. Mike Stern doesn’t have a great legacy of recordings to ruin, but this is certainly no excuse to make a CD as mushy as this.
This CD’s trick is that it features the wordless vocal stylings of Richard Bona, Elizabeth Kontomanou, Phillip Hamilton, and Arto Tuncboyaciyan. Much of the music sounds like the Ewok song from the end of Return of the Jedi, or a smooth jazz companion to Paul Simon’s Graceland and Yes’ Big Generator. The song titles warn of what to expect: “One World” (generic world-stuff), “The River” (luke-warm and still), and “Wishing Well” (bells and windchimes), to name a few. I noticed after a few listens that “Wishing Well” is Stevie Wonder-like, but it’s just impossible to get through the slickly sentimental production goop.
There are some good guitar solos buried in the adult contemporary gloss, but it’s pretty painful mining for them. Stern is typically impressive. Some nights I’ve heard him on automatic pilot—that’s not the case here. His solos take unpredictable turns and he unveils some breathtaking figures. You can hear his fingers on the strings, even through the effects, even through the production. And the last track, “Way Out East”, is strong enough to suffer some of the slickness: it’s a wicked bit of Eastern romance, in the tradition of “A Night in Tunisia” and Ellington’s “The Far East Suite”.
Mike Stern’s a great guitarist. It would be nice to hear him in a different setting. I remember that when his Standards (and Other Songs) CD came out in ‘92 there was some sense in the jazz press that Stern was turning to more “serious” material by moving away from rock. I’d like to hear him rock more. Atlantic should put this guy in a big room with a good rock rhythm section and record him for 10 days straight with one microphone. Get him a good producer. I’d love to hear him smash one over the fence.