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Mike Stern - These Times

ESC Records 4911, January 13, 2004 release

On These Times, his auspicious debut on ESC Records (distributed by Ryko in the U.S.), 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 -- one of the true guitar greats of his generation -- 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 inimitable virtuosic touch on banjo to one tune.

"This album was a bit of a continuation of Voices but with some strong instrumental tunes as well", says Stern, referring to his Grammy-nominated album from 2001. "I definitely wanted to continue working with Richard Bona, who played such a big part on Voices. And I've always wanted to play and record with Kenny Garrett. He's a very special musician. I wrote a couple of instrumental tunes for him on this cd and he sounded great."

Kontomanou, who also played a key role on Voices, brings her ethereal vocal talents to bear on four tunes from These Times. "I think she has got a very special voice", says Stern. "She has such an amazing range and her whole vibe fit perfectly with some of these tunes."

While the vocal presence is significant on These Times, there is also considerable stretching instrumentally by Stern and company -- world class soloists all. "I was really happy with the results because everybody played their asses off", says Mike. "That's the most fun for me... to write something and then have great musicians come in and get excited about playing the material with each other. And that kind of energy you can kind of grab onto and go from there, which is what happened in the studio this time out. Basically, the bulk of the recording was done in three days so it's got a very live feeling to it. There was a really positive vibe throughout the whole session and everybody played beautifully."

One of the goals for These Times, says Stern, was to balance that excitable raw energy of a live performance with the production values necessary to build pieces to dramatic peaks. "We did a lot of live playing in the studio as a band and afterwards I did add some extra guitar parts, more so on this one than I usually do on my recordings. So you get 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, and then we added some production to the tunes. Not too much production but hopefully just enough. And that successful balance is due in large part to Jim Beard. He's produced several of my albums and that whole hookup has worked great for me. There's a good kind of give and take between the two of us and at the end of the day it really works out. He's amazing at knowing how to keep it live-sounding and still have production values without being over-the-top or too slick-sounding. He preserves the raw vibe of the live playing but is really great at building up the tracks from there."

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 Kenny 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 laying 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. "I've always been a big fan of Joe's", says Mike. "This tune has some of his flavor and it's also the kind of thing that Richard sings so well. When he really likes a tune he gets into it so deeply and always adds some extra special stuff to it with regards to harmony. And Vinnie sounds great on this tune. I thought he sounded really terrific on Voices but that was almost more of a supportive role for him. I wanted more drums upfront on this record, I wanted him to be a little bit more adventurous on the kit and that's exactly what we got from Vinnie, particularly on this track". Catch Mike's ferocious six-string wailing on this exhilarating workout.

"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. As Mike explains, "Bela is somebody I've dug for a long time and always wanted to play with. I remember hearing him back when the Flecktones had just formed. We played on the same bill at a radio industry convention and I was really impressed with the whole band back then. It was very fresh sounding and I was just amazed at what Bela could do on the banjo. But when I heard them again more recently, a couple of years ago at a nightclub in New York, I was just blown away. They were playing at such a high level... some very fresh and very different stuff. And so I would ask Bela from time to time about doing some recording together and we were finally able to do this one piece for this album."

Adds Mike of his banjo counterpart, "He's such a terrific musician and certainly knows his instrument amazingly well. And as far as I'm concerned, this is just the beginning. 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. 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 very sad but poignant story and, of course, Richard sings it 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. "Those kind of jump rope rhymes had a soulful rhythm to them", he recalls, "so that's the kind of vibe we were after here -- just a cool, fun kind of groove tune. 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. He's got a very beautiful singing kind of sound on his horn that I just love."

The uptempo burner "Remember" was dedicated to Stern's late comrade, tenor saxophonist Bob Berg, who died last December in a car accident near his home on Long Island. As Mike explains, "To me, this tune sounds like something Bob Berg would've played. I 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. It's an 'Impressions' kind of groove. It's the kind of modal stuff that Bob used to write and just burn on. He always played great over everything and was an amazing, soulful ballad player as well, but I remember him just tearing up over a tune like this. So it just felt like an obvious choice to me to name it in memory of 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 bean 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 and 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. It's amazing how big a track can sound just with great percussion playing. There are no drums on that track and you don't miss them."

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 another triumphant blend of searing chops, engaging melodies and infectious grooves, enhanced by the inspiring sound of the human voice in all its glory. Like its predecessor, Voices, it demonstrates Mike's openness for new directions and new influences in his music and further establishes his place at the top of the jazz guitar world.

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