Mike Stern: These Times

Robert R. Calder

Mike Stern

These Times

Label: esc
US Release Date: 2004-01-13
UK Release Date: 2004-03-08

While versatility is no alternative to being able to do some specific things extremely well, I'm not so sure it's quite the right word for Mike Stern's performance on this set. In several respects it pursues variety, but overall the music's metabolised into a sort of unity. The electronic basis imposes serious limitations of tonality. A resolutely acoustic set by John Patitucci reviewed about a year ago lets go of any attempt at an ensemble and lets the music sing for itself, whether solo double bass or Latin or gospel singing takes over. Here, a band is dominant and musical colour emerges not against a background of silence but a modification of a matrix of sound.

There are "world" influences, or inputs, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan is a source of material, the African singer-bassist Richard Bona appears, and among a long, classy guest list of guests are three saxophonists (the outstanding performance is from Bob Franceschini on tenor rather than Kenny Garrett on higher horns of the same family).

Like much of what follows, the opener, "Chatter", is a sort of all things to all men. When Stern gets to dancing his guitar it can at times seem he's nearly playing an Irish jig or reel. Garrett's soprano solo does a kind of Zorba dance with extra ouzo, with repetitions of a soaring phrase which goes kind of "wheeeeeee". An excellent start.

The human voice appears on a lot of titles, but not so clearly as to be easily definable as different from one or another instrument, a saxophone or something electronic. Odd, specifically identifiable sounds individuate themselves, friendly faces in the mist of the general musical matrix: a good old crude old Hammond organ (of course synthesized), a semi-synthetic sort of Caribbean Swingle Singers interlude. There are decent guitar solos, with the echoey sound preferred by Stern, as if there were two of him. Maybe there are, since the notes refer to his having dubbed himself on a number of things (the occasional choral bits seem to be one voice overdubbed a few times on itself). Stern says that "production" is necessary, but that too much production can be a bad thing; he hopes he hasn't added too much production. What I call the melting pot character of the music makes it hard to say whether he has. He seems not to have started with anything very different: the electronic Irish Hooley, the electronically generated chorus, the holy-roller bass guitar hallelujah-ing like an African township. You can't say he hasn't absorbed his variety of influences, or that any lack of influences has been absorbed.

There's a real banjo just now and then, played by the rising star Bela Fleck (but I think I had to read the notes to know), amid some poppishly smooth synthesizer, piano, Mike Stern doing his double-voiced guitar. The banjo blips and plinks (I was wondering whether the same effect might not have been done, equally, with an aural analogue of mirrors).

At one point, strangely rustic percussion goes with a kind of primitive (but Stern is also always polished) blues guitar for a few seconds, and then more worldish but ostensibly wordless (or African language and falsetto) vocalising; and somewhere in the depths of the accompaniment the guitar seems to briefly want to be an organ.

Another rock guitar solo, with the faintest hint of bagpipe skirl at one stage. A Highland Fling now? But the Highlands of which country? Very danceable, which is one way of treating this music, which I never find terribly expressive. It's overfinished. It has a sort of richness to which I could respond like British wine writers responding to their professionally preferred. Sipping a substantial vintage they exclaim the like of "I'm getting raspberries", or "there's tobacco!".

There are of course neither raspberries nor tobacco in the fermented juice of the grape, and by and large throughout this I get one wine. Sometimes there's blues guitar played with real finesse and delicacy, there's a lot of variety of rhythm and of tonal colour within the restrictions of non-acoustic instruments, but the experienced cook can tell you that a misjudged excess of one spice can be countered by adding excesses of several others: not to undo the initial mistake, but transform the uncomfortable into something completely different. Seasoned cooks recognise when amateurs have overdone the seasoning and spicing, and have overcooked.

Bob Franceschini on tenor in "Remember" is something of a standout in a tribute to the late and terribly missed Bob Berg, whose death in a car accident still leaves admirers feeling a draught. Stern plays well too, and it is a very decent tribute.

It's all by and large pleasant enough in a kind of no extremes way verging on qawwali, on jazz, on rock, on not so much "world" as global. I'm reminded of Elvis Costello's father, who started out as a vocalist in a big band and sometime in the 1950s had also to do Elvis Presley, which he did with great aplomb. This is what showband performers who can almost do anything do (not the same as do almost anything). There's not enough air here to treat this CD as more than a showband performance with a wide range of intercultural musical reference. The combination of variety and sameness isn't right, far too evenly balanced, though what's played is invariably played well. Certainly some readers will wonder what I'm going on about, and will go for a showcase of Mike Stern.

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