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Play Review (4/5 stars)

Simpatico guitarists can strike sparks when they work together. Witness recent collaborations of Pat Metheny with John Scofield and Jim Hall, and Pat Martino with six different six-stringers. Mike Stern was hooked up with Martino for two tracks on the latter project, so he knows the magic that can happen when like-minded players unite.

Given Stern's signature sound -- a diamond-hard, single-note attack with a minimum of electronic distortion -- the choice of Bill Frisell might seem an odd one, but, as in live, sometimes opposites attract. Just how much is demonstrated on "Blue Tone", where Frisell's signature chiming, atmospheric sound provides a gauzy counterbalance to stern's hard edge.

"All Heart" moves them closer to a common ground, one that sounds like it's situated just west of Cheyenne, deep in the heart of Frisell's usual big sky territory. Jim Beard provides some subtle shading on keyboards, and Stern turns in an achingly beautiful solo.

Their remaining two duets dance somewhere between the two extremes, with Stern's spidery lead lines twisting around Frisell's accompaniment in "Frizz" and both players exploring a multitude of tonal variations on the stripped-down quartet outing, "Big Kids".

The combination of Stern with John Scofield is something that has been 16 years in the making, ever since the two of them worked together briefly in one of Miles Davis' best post-comeback units. That line-up made one recording, 1983's Star People, and guitar fans have been waiting for Sco and Stern to reunite ever since.

Scofield's slippery style meshes so well with Stern's more staccato approach that it's sometimes difficult to determine whose amplifier is emitting which sound without the benefit of headphones. "Small World" drops the two guitarists down in the Crescent City, courtesy of Ben Perowsky's rolling second-line drumming, but it's the boppish "Outta Town" where this two-guitar concept really shines. Sco and Stern both have faultless articulation at any tempo, and the twisting theme pushes them to the limit as they crank up the intensity to trade choruses.

Stern's three solo outings could run the risk of paling by comparison to the all-star hookups, but Dennis Chambers keeps that from happening with powerhouse drumming that bows deeply in the direction of Billy Cobham. In fact, the jittery high-octane funk of "Link", propelled by Chambers and highlighted by a churning Bob Malach solo, is one the best things on Play.

James Hale

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