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Mike Stern – Voices

How does a guitar hero re-invent himself? After nine albums of awe-inspiring chops, melodic and lyrical phrasing and sizzling six-string statements in all manner of contexts, what is there left to say? Mike Stern answered that question by digging deep and coming up with the album that has been inside of him for years. Voices, his tenth recording for Atlantic Jazz, is easily his most inspired outing to date. 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 re-introduced himself to contemporary pop audiences with Supernatural. Stern's killer guitar work - previously heard on recordings by Miles Davis, Steps Ahead, and the Brecker Brothers band - is still very much intact on Voices. It's just in the service of the celebratory grooves and remarkably expressive voices that grace this world beat flavored project.

"I've always wanted to do a record with voices", says the Grammy-nominated guitarist. "Some of the tunes that I've written in the past, with tricky kind of beboppish heads, are just unsingable. But then there are some tunes of mine that singers have always mentioned to me that they liked very much... the more singable, lyrical tunes. And so I always thought it would be cool to hook up with singers and explore that further."

One of the primary inspirations for the project was Cameroonian bassist and vocalist extraordinaire Richard Bona, whom Mike had met some years back at a jazz festival in Israel. "I was there with the Mike Stern/Bob Berg Band and he was there playing with the Zawinul Syndicate. We ended up jamming that night back at the hotel room and later when he moved to New York we talked about getting together on a project. And we've just kept in touch over the years until we were finally able to realize this collaboration."

Through multiple overdubbing, Bona creates a triumphant vocal choir on the buoyant opener, One World. Mike responds in kind with a typically heroic guitar solo, wailing freely within the densely woven fabric of this well-crafted piece. Bona also lends his appealing vocals to the relaxed groove of The River, which is underscored by producer Jim Beard's churchy piano playing and sparked by Stern's earthy blues phrasing. Other singers who appear on Voices are Elizabeth Kontomanou, Arto Tuncboyaciyan and Philip Hamilton, formerly of Full Circle, a popular world beat group from the 80's. "The kind of voices that Richard, Arto and Philip have really appealed to me for this project", explains Stern. "They all can sing in a kind of falsetto voice that is so beautiful, like a soprano sax but, of course, better. There's no comparison to the human voice but I like that high register for these kind of melodies. And Elizabeth, interestingly enough, has a very low voice for a woman. So it's really a rich, soulful voice, which added another quality to the record."

That sultry quality is perhaps best showcased on Elizabeth's intimate reading of the elegant Brazilian flavored ballad What Might Have Been, which is underscored by drummer Vinnie Colaiuta's gentle brushwork and Stern's nuanced delivery on nylon string acoustic guitar. Kontomanou also appears on the moody Slow Change, which features some killer distortion-laced licks from Stern, and sings alongside Hamilton on two other pieces - the buoyant African flavored groover Spirit and the bristling Leni's Smile, an upbeat ode to Mike's singer-songwriter wife Leni Stern. "I wanted Leni to be on this record too", says Mike. "I was so inspired by her last record (the symphonic Kindness of Strangers) that I wanted to work with her on my project. Usually we prefer to keep our careers separate but this would've been a perfect opportunity to collaborate. That was kind of the plan but we just got so swamped with things that it didn't happen. But we'll have to save that for the future, because I definitely want to record with vocals again."

Given the exotic tendencies of the featured singers on Voices, the tunes ended up lending themselves toward a world beat vibe, which actually surprised and pleased Stern. "Naturally, the tunes with Richard have an African sounding vibe to them", he says. "And then there's one called Way Out East, which is a play on Sonny Rollins' famous album title Way Out West. That one features Arto on vocals and it's got a distinctly Middle Eastern quality to it, like something you might associate with Morocco or Turkey."

Again, not something you'd expect to hear on a Mike Stern album.

Other guests on Voices include tenor sax giant Michael Brecker, drummer Dennis Chambers, bassists Chris Doky and Lincoln Goines, guitarist Jon Herington and the young tenor sax burner in Stern's current working band, Bob Franseschini.

"We went for more of a live approach than layering it all in the studio", says Stern. "We could've done this with sequencers and stuff but then you lose the burn factor from the live performance. We wanted to just play. And actually, it all went down smoothly in three days - two days with Vinnie Colaiuta and one day with Dennis Chambers. The only things I overdubbed was one tune where I broke a string in the middle of the solo and another tune where a microphone fell from one of my amps during my solo, so I had to play that one over. Everything else is just live. And that's really what I wanted for this album - the live vibe with real drums and piano in the same room and a little bit of leakage so that it sounds real."

Stern reveals that Voices actually represents a return to his roots, in a sense. "In a weird way, this project is really about coming full circle for me. I actually was in an opera when I was little and was also singing in the church choir. So the voice was kind of the first instrument I had even before guitar."

Born on January 10, 1953, Stern began playing guitar at age 12, emulating his boyhood idols like B.B. King, Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix. "I liked the feel of the guitar and I got hooked on it, he recalls. But I didn't really get serious about it until I went to Berklee in 1971." At the Berklee College of Music in Boston, Mike's focus shifted from rock and blues to jazz as he enterted into an intensive woodshedding period of absorbing classic recordings by Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Wes Montgomery, Jim Hall, McCoy Tyner and Bill Evans while also studying with guitarists Mick Goodrick and Pat Metheny. On a recommendation from Metheny, Stern landed a gig with Blood, Sweat & Tears in 1976 and remained with the band for two years, appearing on BS&T's More Than Ever and Brand New Day. That gig is also significant for introducing Mike to two musicians who would later figure prominently in his life - percussionist Don Alias and bassist Jaco Pastorius.

Following his stint with BS&T, Stern returned to Boston and began studying privately with local jazz guru Charlie Banacos. In 1979, Mike joined Billy Cobham's powerhouse fusion band, replacing John Scofield in the lineup. Two years later, he got the call from Miles Davis. Mike made his public debut with Miles' band on June 27, 1981 at the Kix nightclub in Boston (a performance that was documented and later released by CBS as We Want Miles). Mike remained with Miles through 1983, also appearing on Man With The Horn and Star People. From 1983 to 1984, he toured with Jaco Pastorius' Word of Mouth band and in 1985 returned to Miles' lineup for a second tour of duty that lasted close to a year.

In the summer of 1986, Stern went out on the road with David Sanborn and later joined a powerhouse line-up of Steps Ahead, which also featured the vibist Mike Mainieri, saxophonist Michael Brecker, bassist Darryl Jones and drummer Steve Smith. His 1986 debut on Atlantic Records, Upside Downside , featured such celebrated colleagues as Sanborn, Pastorius, saxophonist Bob Berg, bassists Mark Egan and Jeff Andrews, keyboardist Mitch Forman and drummers Dave Weckl and Steve Jordan. From 1986 through 1988, Mike was a member of Michael Brecker's potent quintet and appeared on Don't Try This At Home.

Stern's second Atlantic album, 1988's Time In Place, continued the promise of his debut. He followed that up with 1989's Jigsaw and 1991's Odds Or Evens. During this period he also formed a touring group with saxophonist Berg that included drummer Dennis Chambers and bassist Lincoln Goines. They remained a working unit from 1989 to 1992, at which point Stern joined a reunited Brecker Brothers Band (he appears on 1992's Return of the Brecker Brothers). Mike's acclaimed 1993 Atlantic Jazz release, Standards (And Other Songs), led to him being named Best Jazz Guitarist of the Year by the readers and critics of Guitar Player magazine. He followed that up with two hard-hitting offerings in 1994's Is What It Is and 1996's Between The Lines, both of which received Grammy nominations.

In 1997, Stern recorded Give And Take with bassist John Patitucci, drummer Jack DeJohnette, percussionist Don Alias and special guests Michael Brecker and David Sanborn. Their freewheeling covers of Sonny Rollins' Oleo, John Coltrane's Giant Steps, Cole Porter's I Love You and Jimi Hendrix's Who Knows helped Mike earn the Orville W. Gibson Award for Best Jazz Guitarist that year.

Stern's ninth release for Atlantic jazz was a six-string summit meeting with colleagues Bill Frisell and John Scofield that was appropriately titled Play. And now with Voices, Mike carves out a new niche for himself while still showcasing the chops that have marked him as one of the true guitar greats of his generation.

Released September 4th, 2001.

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