On These Times
, his auspicious debut on ESC Records, three-time Grammy-nominated guitarist Mike Stern joins forces with stellar saxophonist Kenny Garrett (a fellow Miles Davis alumnus), drummer Vinnie Colaiuta and a string of stellar bass players in Will Lee, Victor Wooten and Richard Bona. Along with percussionists Arto Tuncboyaciyan and Don Alias, drummer Dennis Chambers, tenor saxophonists Bob Franceschini and Bob Malach, vocalist Elizabeth Kontomanou and keyboardist-producer Jim Beard, Stern places his signature fluid and lyrical lines into the fabric of highly appealing vocal and instrumental numbers that strike a splendid balance between memorable melodies and burning fusillades. Special guest Bela Fleck also adds his touch on banjo to one tune.
While the vocal presence is significant on These Times
, there is also considerable stretching instrumentally by Stern and company - world-class soloists all.
Stern and Co. successfully blend that excitable raw energy of a live performance with the production values necessary to build pieces to dramatic peaks.
The musicians did a lot of live playing in the studio as a band, Stern says in a press release. Afterwards, he added some extra guitar parts, more than he usually does on his recordings. So the listener gets the live feel from the interaction of bass, drums and soloists, and all the natural dynamics and excitement that occurs when people play together in a live situation. Add a modest amount of production to the tunes, and you’ve got an excellent presentation.
These Times opens with the slamming Chatter,
the title being a reference to a term that has become increasingly familiar in these troubled times. This aggressive amalgam combines an Arabic vibe in Garrett’s snaky soprano sax lines with a Monkish attitude in Jim Beard’s choppy piano voicings and a kind of New Orleans second-line groove provided by drummer Colaiuta.
As Stern explains, "This was loosely inspired by (Pakistani qawwali singer) Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, who I had been listening to a lot during the time of this recording. It’s kind of a quirky groove tune with that Middle Eastern melody and a second-line feel underneath. And I thought Kenny’s soprano playing fit perfectly with that Middle Eastern vibe we were going for. I just explained to him what I wanted, and he dealt. Also, Arto brings a lot to the whole thing with his vocals at the very beginning of the piece. He really helps to establish a vibe for the tune."Silver Lining,
a briskly paced, surging number that reveals a decided Joe Zawinul influence, is an excellent showcase for Bona, a former member of the Zawinul Syndicate whose melodic vocals and unerring sense of groove on the electric bass propel the track. Colaiuta shines on this one. Bona also provides a falsetto vocal scat to accompany his light-speed bass riffs.I Know You,
a delicate and lyrical ballad that Mike wrote for his wife - guitarist-singer-songwriter Leni Stern - again features Bona’s angelic falsetto vocals, along with a guest appearance from banjo virtuoso Fleck.
Adds Mike of his banjo counterpart, "We’re actually talking about doing more together in the future where we actually stretch out more and really play something where you get to hear him solo more. Hopefully, we’ll do that on the next record."
The exotic-sounding Mirage
(also influenced by the music of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan) features Stern doubling the alluring melody with vocalist Kontomanou. "It’s a fresh-sounding groove that has more of a world music vibe and also has a little bit of the Police kind of feel to it," Mike says. "Elizabeth sounds great on it. She’s got just the right voice for this piece. And I think Bob Franceschini also really shines here. He plays a great tenor solo on the fade, kind of jamming on the way out."
In the middle of this vibrant piece, Mike dazzles with a burning solo of his own, combining melodic inventiveness with fiery intensity.
Stern’s moving minor key ballad If Only
serves as a vehicle for Bona’s thoughtful lyrics (sung in his native Douala dialect) about a real-life incident that touched him as a boy growing up in Africa.
"I wanted Richard to write lyrics for one of the ballads, and this is the one he thought he could definitely write for. His lyrics describe how as a boy he was going to go someplace with some friends. As it turned out, they all took the van ahead of him, so he had to wait and catch another ride. The first van got into an accident, and all his friends died. So it’s a story about fate and how little control you have in the world. Things happen, and there’s only so much you can do about it, so you just have to put one foot in front of the other and keep going on through life, and whatever happens happens."
It’s a sad, but poignant story, which Bona delivers beautifully.
Kontomanou returns for the buoyantly infectious groover Street Rhyme
, which Mike says was inspired by some of the jump roping rhymes he remembers kids singing on the playground in his hometown of Washington, D.C.
"It’s a street rhyme with a little bit of a world music vibe from the Indian-flavored thing that Arto puts on it. Elizabeth also sounds so great, almost like Tina Turner on this one. And Bob Malach kills on this tune." So does Mike, whose own triumphant solo is marked by the kind of scorching abandon that has become a Stern trademark over the past 20 years.Avenue B
is a profoundly blue number highlighted by some earthy exchanges between Stern’s urgent guitar and Garrett’s robust alto sax.
"I almost put a voice on that tune," says Mike, "but Kenny sounds so much like a singer when he plays that I really didn’t need one. He’s definitely got a vocal quality happening in his playing, which is also something that Miles had."
The uptempo burner Remember
was dedicated to Stern’s late comrade, tenor saxophonist Bob Berg, who died in a car accident near his home on Long Island. Stern actually wrote it a while ago and titled it after the fact.
"I wanted to title something on this record for him, and at first I was leaning toward one of the ballads, but then I thought that this tune was more like Bob."
Both Stern and Franceschini unleash on this incandescent vehicle, which is spurred on by the superb rhythm tandem of bassist Victor Wooten and drummer Dennis Chambers.
"That’s really a special rhythm section," adds Mike. "We recorded this just before we had a three-night engagement at the Bottom Line in New York. That gig turned out to be an incredible experience. With those cats you just kind of solo real quick and get out of the way. Dennis, of course, is someone I’ve played with a lot over the years, including the band I co-led with Bob Berg. And Victor is just amazing. He does some stuff
I’ve never heard anybody do on the bass or any instrument, for that matter. And together, these guys are scary."
The title track, These Times,
carries a mysterioso vibe and once again highlights Garrett’s plaintive, singing quality on alto sax while What You Believe
is a kind of folky tune buoyed by Bona’s soaring falsetto vocals and peerless fretless bass playing. The song is underscored by Stern’s warm touch and lyrical approach. By overdubbing several tracks of harmony vocals, Bona creates the uplifting sweep of a full choir as the piece gradually builds to a more dramatic crescendo. And as Mike points out, "Richard plays some smaller percussion on the first part, and then at the end Don Alias adds a bunch of bigger drums to really build the sound to, by the time it fades out with the guitar solo, it sounds huge."
There are no drums on the track, but they’re not missed.
The album’s energized closer, Last One down,
is a seriously funky number replete with Mike’s vicious wah-wah guitar lines, Colaiuta’s insistent backbeat, Beard’s nasty clavinet playing and Wooten’s low-end groove. Mike really erupts on this urgent workout.These Times
is a triumphant blend of searing chops, engaging melodies and infectious grooves, enhanced by the inspiring sound of the human voice in all its glory.