Tag Archives: Mike Stern

For Mike Stern’s 61st Birthday, a 2003 Downbeat Feature

Today is the 61st birthday of master guitarist-composer Mike Stern, and to note the occasion I’m posting the print edit of a feature for DownBeat  that it was my privilege to write in 2003. I’m also linking to a conversation we had in 2009 for the www.jazz.com website.

Mike Stern:

Guitarist Mike Stern usually spends Monday and Wednesday nights playing at 55 Christopher, a dimly lit bar on the ground floor of a brownstone in Greenwich Village. Discolored white sound tiles coat the low ceiling, which hovers above some 20 tables placed between a long bar and a yellowish west wall festooned with photos and LP covers. The bandstand is an 8 x 10 rectangle in the back corner with a fourth wall that doubles as an aisle along which customers can wriggle backstage to the cramped restrooms, which had seen better days 20 years ago, when Stern, who was then Miles Davis guitarist of choice, began his residence.
Stern doesn’t need this twice-a-week gig when he’s off the road. But 55 Christopher serves his purposes well.  “I’ve always got to find a place where I can play regularly,” says Stern, who staked a similar claim in the early ‘80s at a famously bacchanalian Soho bar called 55 Grand. “Otherwise I’d  be playing in my room. It gives me joy, and over time I learn a lot. I’m  grateful to have a regular gig where I can try different things. It stretches you.”
“It’s the longest-running jazz show in New York, and on a recent installment, the second set of a frigid January night, Stern stood before a jam-packed house. He held his guitar hip level and wore black pullover, black jeans and black sneakers. Eyes shut, bending his neck at a slight angle and swaying to the beat, he strummed a rubato melody, slowly resolving into the familiar refrain of Cole Porter’s “I Love You” over drummer John Riley’s crisp brushwork. Then Stern developed an extended solo, phrasing interactively with the drummer, carving out chorus after chorus with immaculate execution, sustaining thematic logic, linear invention and melodic focus at a staggering pace, inexorably ratcheting up the tension.
Like a world-class relay runner, tenorist Chris Potter took the baton full stride, and launched a tonally extravagant statement filled with intervallic zigzags and surprising resolutions in the manner of 1965-vintage Sonny Rollins. Guitar and tenor sustained fresh dialogue on further tradeoffs. Francois Moutin was in complete command of his instrument, carving out surging melodic bass lines while clearly stating pulse and roots. It was world-class collective improvising by a unit that had never played together until that evening.
Curiously, Stern has rarely showcased this freewheeling aspect of his tonal personality on his 12 leader records since 1986. “A lot of people have told me they  like to hear a live record, and I’d love to do one,” says Stern, 51, citing the room’s acoustic idiosyncracies as one reason why such a project remains elusive. “At the end of the day, you want to document what you do. But whenever I get around to recording, I have new tunes I want to play.”
Stern offers 11 brand-new ones on These Times, his debut release for German label ESC. As on Voices, his 2001 finale for Atlantic, he explores songs with words and songs with sounds, blending the distinctive vocal timbres of Richard Bona and Elizabeth Kontomanou into the guitar-keyboard-sax voicings that are his trademark. He propels it all with forceful beats by Bona and Will Lee on bass, drummers Vinnie Colaiuta and Dennis Chambers, and percussionist Arto Tuncboyacian. Kenny Garrett and Bob Franceschini split the sax chores. Alternating gnarly burnouts and lyric ballads, Stern and producer Jim Beard is customary keyboardist weak the themes by which Stern has established his compositional identity and tonal personality to an international audience since 1981, the year he joined Davis and recorded an extended solo on  at Time, the opening track on Man With A Horn.
“One thing about Miles that always impressed me is that he always played music he wanted to play,” Stern says. “While I was with Miles, he was offered a fortune to play with Ron Carter and Tony Williams in Japan. But he was just interested in what he was doing, and didn  want to be swayed. At the same time, he always had this balance of wanting to reach people. That’s in all his music. Somebody who doesn’t  really know jazz can still get Miles Davis. And balance is always important to me, however I come up with it.”
Those imperatives and an encounter with Bona at a European festival inspired Stern’s  recent immersion in the voice. “He had the day free, so I grabbed Richard and brought him to my hotel room, where I had a little amplifier, and we were playing some standards,” Stern recalls. “He knew my stuff, and he started singing a couple of my ballads, which I thought was great. One way I write is to sing the melody and write it down, so I have tunes that lend themselves to singing. Anyway, when I was thinking about doing Voices, I asked him about it, and he told me that he knew the idea would work and that he’d sing a few tunes. So I leapt into this new thing.”
“Getting the gig with Miles was the pinnacle of jazz success for a young musician at that time,” says John Scofield, Stern’s friend since the late ‘70s and his guitar partner with Miles in 1982-83.  “Your status went up. That’s all there was to it.”
“Miles made it clear that he didn’t  want me to do what he did,” says Stern, who diligently followed the trumpet legend’s  instructions to “turn it up or turn it off.” “He would leave all the space, and he wanted more aggression and energy from me. He’d move his hands to signal Al Foster to open up behind me. It was almost like he was working with shapes. A lot of the music was easy vamps, and they’d go on for a while, so you had to milk it for whatever you could. He also wanted a lean sound, which you can get with just guitar and no keyboards even if you play a lot of notes. I have him in my ear to this day, that beautiful vocal sound and his phrasing.

Stern likes his drummers hard-hitting and in-the-pocket, and observers, noting his high-visibility associations with Miles, Blood, Sweat & Tears, Billy Cobham, Jaco Pastorius and Steps Ahead, often refer to his music as fusion. The term puzzles Stern, a hardcore Jim Hall-Wes Montgomery acolyte who continues to transcribe the solos of John Coltrane and McCoy Tyner to slake his thirst for new vocabulary. In 2002, he recorded Four Generations Of Miles (Chesky) with fellow Milesians Ron Carter, Jimmy Cobb and George Coleman.
“Blood, Sweat & Tears was one of the first jazz-rock bands, and Billy Cobham played what people have called fusion,” Stern says. “But I always wanted to hear some more swinging. When I first played guitar in the 60s, I listened to lots of blues, and then Jimi Hendrix, Jeff Beck, Eric Clapton and cats like that—and then got into jazz. Motown was always on the radio. And I always loved Joni Mitchell’s  Blue. So I didn’t leave one part of me behind, but incorporated all of it. Sometimes the sound and sensibility of rock or blues gives me more color and a wider range of expression, a singing quality, more legato and horn-like than percussive.”
As he did in the days when fusion was creative and organic, Stern takes pains to sustain his edge. “I try to be aware of content and find new stuff all the time,” he says. “I try to get players who are going to kick my ass. You react to the people around you, so if the drummer is playing energy, you’re likely to try to match it. The hardest thing is when I’m trying to play some funk with a jazz drummer, and you can tell it isn’t going on. It happens the other way, too. Only a handful have that balance, to play in the middle of the beat but keep that creative jazz sensibility. Sometimes they throw you in a huge hall in a festival, and you want someone who can slam it down.
“But when I write, I look to have the whole picture—both the lyrical and the more slamming stuff. I want the arrangements to have a quality of spontaneity, so there’s conversation between drums, bassist, soloist and keyboard, but I also want enough production to support the tune, even the less complicated ones, so there isn’t  any, ‘yeah, the solo is cool, but the tune ain’t  happening.’ The singable stuff is simpler, but sometimes the hardest to write, because you can  hide behind college chords. On those, I don’t want to write a bunch of weird harmony that’s vague but intellectually impressive. I want to limit myself.”
Simplicity of expression is a complex proposition for Stern. “One of the challenges on the guitar is to try to get a legato, horn-like phrasing,” says Scofield, who alternated with Bill Frisell as Stern’s guitar foil on the 1999 album Play. “Frisell, Pat Metheny and I do it by not picking every note. But if you do pick every note, you can get a precise attack. The problem with that style is that it can sound real mechanical; some guitar players try to do it, and it’s sloppy and weird. Mike can produce a beautiful legato sound but be absolutely accurate on his lines. I don  think I’ve met anybody who does that the way Mike can, and he could do it when I first met him.
“Whatever I have together didn’t  fall from the sky like rain,” Stern says. “It takes a lot of work. I still try to push myself to develop the potential I have. To sound fresh every night I have to discover new stuff, push the envelope. So I’m studying all the time.”
Frisell can speak to Stern’s  obsessive practice habits.  “I met Mike right after he got off the road with Blood, Sweat & Tears, and we immediately started playing at his apartment for hours and hours,” Frisell says. “You can practice all you want and not sound like an individual. But Mike was—and still is—thorough. He would work on every possible thing he could think of. We did ear-training exercises, trying to hear different harmonic structures against a certain note and testing each other. He did it to the point where I couldn’t  believe what he was hearing. All the elements you hear in his playing now were there in his apartment in the 70s.”
“Perfectionism is a character asset,” Stern says. “But it works against you if it paralyzes you. Once I was struggling with some pieces, and my composition teacher, Edgar Grana, told me that one rule is not to judge the tune, but finish it and play it with other people. That  the way you grow. If you throw it out halfway through, you won’t  know what you have. I remember Pat Metheny telling me, “You’ve got what you need, you sound terrific. All you’ve got to do is go out and play.” He recommended me for Blood, Sweat & Tears, and I thought I’d go do the audition and get turned down. But they called me back for the gig.
“My focus then was on playing more like Jim Hall—to play slow and hear whatever I was doing, and not let my fingers get ahead of me. I wasn’t concentrating on technique at all; I figured I’d be able to play tempos later on if I had to. But Blood, Sweat & Tears used to play Spain as an instrumental, and I couldn’t  make the tempo. So here was this real-world situation where I had to deal! Jaco was in the band then. He was a direct guy. He told me, ‘That slow and steady stuff is great, but now you’ve got to start practicing to get your chops happening more.’ Jaco and I were maniacs together. Later, when I lived over 55 Grand, he’d  crash with me upstairs. Then we’d  play downstairs non-stop.”

During the early 80s, Scofield says, 55 Grand “became the musician club in New York.” Lured by a louche, no-holds-barred atmosphere, A-list musicians from all varieties of jazz converged to play and be merry into the wee hours. “It wasn’t  like a fusion club and it wasn’t  a free music club,” Scofield recalls. “It was diverse, but it wasn’t  slick. Everybody played there. The owner didn’t charge much money to get in, and we could play whatever we wanted all night long.”
“I always think jazz is going in about five different directions,” says Stern, who now drinks coffee to sustain late nights at 55 Christopher rather than the cognac and cocaine combo that fueled his 55 Grand marathons. “In jazz there’s tons of music that’s timeless—when you rediscover it, it’s fresh again. Then there’s stuff that combines this-and-that, a fusion of different influences with a jazz sensibility at the core. A lot of that was happening at 55 Grand. It was a very cool hang, but self-destructive.”]
In 1984, Miles Davis told Stern, who was showing up to gigs visibly inebriated, “You have to cool out.” “I wasn’t  ready to do it,” Stern recalls. He joined forces with Pastorius, withdrew after a year to enter rehab, sobered up, moved to a quiet East Side neighborhood and rejoined Davis.
“The second time with Miles, he had two keyboard players, and was moving to the stuff he did with Marcus on Tutu, more pop-oriented and arranged,” Stern says. ”I could leave more space, and it felt more natural to do in that environment. He actually had me play some acoustic, nylon-string guitar. But the first band was open. When he told me we were going on the road after I played Fat Time, I said, ‘Great, that will be fun. Who’s playing keyboards?’ ‘Nobody. Just you.’ I was nervous. ‘Don’t  worry. I hear it. You just play.’ No one really knew what he wanted to do.
“You always had to be on your toes; sometimes we  get used to an arrangement, and he would change it on us at the last minute. He liked it when I  lay a chord underneath one of his notes, so I needed to listen closely to know what pitch he was playing. I didn’t get it right away. I thought some of this was going to fall flat on its face—and some of it wasn’t so happening. But some of it was amazing. That’s  what he was looking for.”

“Some people say, ‘I don’t care what anyone thinks.’” Stern remarks. “But that’s a bit strange for me. Music is supposed to be communicative.”
During an end-of-January week at Iridium in support of These Times, Stern balanced the populist imperatives that inform his writing with the workshopping attitude of musical adventure that inspires his 55 Christopher sessions. A heavyweight unit of Bona, Franceschini and drummer Dave Weckl helped Stern navigate five challenging compositions, replete with shifting tempos, gorgeous melodies, provocative hooks, and just enough harmonic protein to fuel the solos. Weckl modulated seamlessly from straight-eighth to spangalang; Bona, accompanying himself delicately on electric bass, sang two songs in a pure falsetto tenor, Stern matching his tone with lyric grace. During the burnouts, Bona carved out Afro-Pastorius flavored countermelodies that transcended the notion of a bassline. To use a cliche, the music was beyond category. Jazz, rock, blues and world feels coexisted and flourished, freed from their compartments, knit together by the smiling leader.
The tone of the proceedings recalled a comment from Frisell.  “I first became aware of Charlie Parker and bebop and the music of the ‘40s and ‘50s at just the moment when things were getting electric,” Frisell said. “So for me, that music was a natural continuum of using what was around to move ahead to the next step. Nobody knew what Fusion was; it didn’t seem that different from other moments that would happen along the way. Then after a few years, it seemed that fusion became codified. Patterns emerged, and people started fitting things into them. It became a style that you fit something into, just like jazz did. For me, jazz is a process of trying to make something happen.”

That was the way Miles Davis did things, and Stern seems to channel his restless spirit as organically as any of his fellow Miles alumni. “Whenever I hung out with Miles, he’d have the radio blasting to whatever was current at the time,” Stern says. “He was into all kinds of music. The more I step back, the older I get, I respect him even more. He was always moving.”

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Uncut Blindfold Test With Vernon Reid, Who Turns 53 Today

To mark guitar giant Vernon Reid’s 53rd birthday, I’m posting the uncut proceedings of a DownBeat Blindfold Test that he sat for a few years back on the occasion of the release of Birthright, an unaccompanied Ulmer recording that he produced, following the ensemble dates Memphis Blood: The Sun Sessions (2001) and No Escape from the Blues: The Electric Lady Sessions (2003).

* * *

1. Henry Threadgill, “Biggest Crumb” (from MAKE A MOVE: EVERYBODY’S MOUTH’S A BOOK, Pi, 2001) (Threadgill, as, comp; Brandon Ross, eg; Bryan Carrott, vb; Stomu Takeishi, eb: Dafnis Prieto, d) (4 stars)

I said before I was not going to try to guess, because I’ll get it all wrong.  But this is very reminiscent of a period of jazz and improvised music… It’s very much in the Henry Threadgill-Anthony Davis… I sort of would take a stab at guessing the guitarist. I think maybe Brandon Ross, maybe Michael Gregory… The thing about it is the sense of space, the sense of giving each note a kind of weight. Which comes from… There’s a certain kind of power in applying one’s chops in that way, to give each note its dignity, if you will. This reminds me of a certain time period, or a certain school of composition, very much like Oliver Lake, Henry Threadgill… It’s the kind of thing that Jay Hoggard used to do. There are other players that have come up, like Ben Monder, who… I mean, Ben Monder is absolutely outrageous.  Or Jef Lee Johnson, who’s another monster, has an unbelievable amount of chops, but is also able to give each note a kind of dignity.  I don’t mean that in any pompous or stiff kind of way, but more like the space around the notes really has an important sense of weight. I would say Frisell is another player, in a completely different way than the school I’m talking about… But he’s another practitioner of that, giving weight to the notes, a kind of dignified weight. I loved it. I don’t want to be too easy a marker, but I would give it 4 stars. [AFTER] It’s a school that I have a great deal of respect for. I love it. I think about a whole bunch of cats, like Baikida Carroll.  Jerome Harris, who’s a phenomenal bassist-guitarist and one of my personal heroes, is part of that whole crew. Even cats like Tim Berne… There’s a thing about giving space and angles. It’s very angled and pointillistic. Very astringent. Not sentimental at all, but not cold. Not at all cold.  Not mathematical.

2. Robert Lockwood, Jr., “Terraplane Blues” (from THE COMPLETE TRIX RECORDINGS, 32 Jazz, 1977/2003) (Robert Lockwood, Jr., vocals, g; Robert Johnson, composer.) (2½ stars)

This is one of those records that I should be able to just say, “Oh, yeah, that’s his date! Jimmy Kimbrough!” Know what I mean? [LAUGHS] It’s a funny thing with records like this, is like… Oh, man! One thing that’s interesting about it is that the tuning is so… It’s slide guitar in an open tuning, with the guitarist sort of, to most ears, out of tune. Know what I mean? But that’s part of an aesthetic that’s like not trying to plug into a chord tuner and work that out. I wouldn’t want to hazard a guess. I’d probably get it wrong. [What did you think about the way he sang?] It’s very funny, because that “you-hoo!” reminds me very much of Robert Johnson. There’s somebody else who it reminds me of and maybe that’s who it is! “Terraplane Blues.” But whenever I hear a song like this, I want to hear “Hellhound On My Trail.”It’s a firmly traditional approach.  These sorts of things are difficult to critique, because it’s like who am I? How dare… Certain traditions are sacrosanct almost. One of the things I like about a cat like Alvin Youngblood Hart is that he’s taken this approach, but he’s singing about modern times. It’s very much like someone that’s studied to be an oil painter but is painting modern subjects. Alvin will have a song about a crack dealer in a country blues style, which I think is really important for the development of the music, and I think traditions can’t get stuck in stone. [Did that sound like a guy who was born in the tradition or a younger guy?] It’s very funny, because the tuning says to me that it’s an older traditional thing, but it could very well be a younger guy tuning with that kind of tuning, which would be very… Not arch, but it would be very knowing. It’s a real gesture for a modern person to have an open tuning in a country blues setting where the tuning is out of tune. It feels…I don’t know, a little arch. Whereas I almost expect it with the more primitive… I mean that in terms of the more primal blues recordings. It’s kind of hard, because you compare this to “Death Letter” by Son House… That is another level of what this is. But it’s a respectable performance.  It’s hard to say how much this performer had at stake. I mean, he’s firmly in command of the idiom, whether it’s an older performer or younger.  But I didn’t get a sense of… It was good. Can you give it stars?  If “Hellhound on My Trail” or “Death Letter” is 5… I mean, it’s well performed.  I wasn’t sure if… It’s weird… [It depends who it is, kind of?] Well, actually it doesn’t.  Because if it turns out to be an older character… If it’s a younger guy, wow.  If it turns out to be Keb Mo’, it’s like, dope. If it’s an older cat, it’s like “Oh.” But these things do have qualitative differences, too. Like I said, if I’m taking “Hellhound On My Trail” as a 5 and “Death Letter” as a 5, or “Devil Got My Woman” as 5, this is really maybe 2-1/2. [AFTER] Really! All right. You know what? It’s so funny, because I love him in more urban… To me, he’s a city blues guy, and I love him with a rhythm section and like that. I think he’s brilliant. I think this is the sort of thing where it’s cool that he can do it, but this is not really his… I mean, who am I to say? It’s like a performer I really dig, but this particular song didn’t do it for me.

3. Rodney Jones, “Oliver and Thad” (from THE UNDISCOVERED FEW, Blue Note, 1999) (Rodney Jones, g. & comp; Lonnie Plaxico, b; Eric Harland, d; Robert Allende, perc.; Earl Gardner, tp; Morris Goldberg, as; Tim Ries, ts; Charles Gordon, tb) (4½ stars)

Swinging the doors off! Wow. All right, now. It’s so fun, man! I would take a stab at Grant Green. Whoo! It’s also so wild, because it also reminds me of one of my teachers, Rodney Jones. Rodney Jones and Bruce Johnson, too. I love it. Beautiful. I love this. The use of parallel fourths. [SINGS THEM] Beautiful arrangement. You know what’s so funny, man, I can’t tell whether this is an older recording or… [HORN SOLI/SHOUT CHORUS] It’s such a… Wow!  Whoo! I love this. It blows me away.  Totally blows me away. Killing. It’s such a kind of late ‘50s-early ‘60s kind of arrangement.  It’s a total jazz lounge, hipster… It’s such an arched-eyebrow arrangement. You know what I mean? It’s Hip with a capital H. Phenomenal. And this is very much built on Wes Montgomery’s kind of chordal voicings. Man, I loved that! That is outstanding. I mean, it’s so funny, because I’m hearing… First I’m hearing that R&B’ish, almost kind of funk to it. To me, Grant Green had this whole kind of… It’s very uptown, very kind of North Philly or Harlem type of thing. It really brings to mind a whole social milieu. There’s a whole thing that went along with music like that. There’s so much to admire.  The arrangement sounds more like a transcription, the way the chord solo was arranged for the horns. I said it reminded me of Rodney Jones. I could hear Rodney arching his eyebrow and doing that, absolutely. I’m probably going to be wrong, but the school of playing is a very kind of hard swing school that incorporates… Obviously, the bebop thing is there, but it’s also very modal, very modernist. The augmented fourths, or augmented fourth type of things, the superimpositions and things like that. And very aware of… Wes’ thing was very much. Bruce Johnson has a song called “I Remember Wes”. [SINGS REFRAIN] That’s the school. I would hate to be wrong!  But it reminds me of Rodney. 4-1/2 stars.

4. Egberto Gismonti, “Salvador (branco)” (from DANÇA DOS ESCRAVOS, ECM, 1988) (Gismonti, guitars, composer) (3½ stars)

I’m going to take a guess and say Egberto Gismonti. I spent so much time listening to DANCA DOS CARBAS, and listening to his duet record with Nana Vasconcelos. The ten-string guitar thing. At first, I was thinking, “Okay, this is an oud” or something. But this is… He’s got a very punchy, very physical, very… It’s interesting, because it reminds me a bit of Ralph Towner, even though it’s very different, but there was a certain kind of attack and very kind of dense clustered improvisation that was very much a kind…I don’t know about ECM school, but it was very… If that’s not Egberto, well, sure… It’s hard to think of a record label as having a school, but it’s very intense, terse melodic statements, attacking the instrument… It’s sort of like the anti Michael Hedges. It’s weird. Like, the level of playing ability is astronomical. It’s incredibly high. Stratosphere. It’s a virtuosity that’s very… It’s very not Paco De Lucia. It’s very much not that. It’s also tied to… You could picture this happening in the Amazon by the side of a river. I will stick by… If that’s not Egberto Gismonti, it is someone who is paying an homage. How many stars?  Egberto is one of these cats that’s almost… I won’t say it’s above criticism. The playing is phenomenal, the improvisation is phenomenal. He’s done other pieces that I’ve liked better. As far as the realm of guitar players, 5 stars, but for his own work… If that’s who it is!  If I’m right, comparing it to his own work, I’d give it 3½.

5. George Freeman, “I Wish I Knew” (from REBELLION, Southport, 1995) (George Freeman, g; Von Freeman, p; Penny Pendleton, b; Michael Raynor, d) (4 stars)

This is very romantic. Beautiful tone. What I like about this is that this is a very much… People should only play ballads if they really believe. I think a lot of times, it’s like an exercise where you’ve got to play a ballad, that’s how you’re a well-rounded player, blah-blah-blah. But to me, ballads only sing if there’s a THERE there. It’s not really about the chops, but it’s really about the commitment to what the melody is, or what the lyric is, or what that feeling is.  And this person unquestionably has that commitment. I love the minimalism in this approach. Because the minimalism is not for any lack of… You can hear the players negotiating the changes very well.  But there’s a kind of forbearance.  It really is about wanting to tell a story. To want to tell the particular story of this song. It seems to me that so many of these songs were wartime songs and post-war songs, from the ‘40s and ‘50s, this kind of writing… The guitar just sings. It sings. I love the use of… If you want to talk about techniques, I love the use of slurring in some of the phrases. I love this. I’m a little… I would guess Grant Green again! [LAUGHS] When I talked about Rodney… [You’re in the right geographic range.] I’m in the right geographic range. It’s not Grant Green. It’s definitely not. Whoo! Using fourths like octaves! I love that. Well, this isn’t my favorite part of the solo. You can leave the fourths alone now! It’s beautiful, though. Beautiful player. Man, it’s weird, because I hear a little of the Jim Hall thing, strangely enough. It sounds like a solid body guitar… Definitely not Jim Hall. I’m in a real bind. Because I know I’ll just throw names out. Definitely 4 stars. [AFTER] Fantastic! What year is this? Good heavens! Man, I love this. Good for him. I loved that. That’s fantastic. So that’s Chico Freeman’s uncle? Has Chico ever made a record with him. What’s up with that? I’m almost positive that was a solid body guitar. Very, very nice.

6. Mike Stern, “Chatter” (from IN THESE TIMES, ESC, 2003) (Stern, eg. comp.; Kenny Garrett, ss; Arto Tuncboyaci, perc.; Jim Beard, p, synth; Will Lee, b; Vinnie Colaiuta, d; Elizabeth Kontomanou, voc) (4 stars)

That head is a bitch! [LAUGHS] They’re still playing the head! It’s very neat. It’s kind of spiffy! [LAUGHS] I mean, it’s incredibly well-arranged music. First thing I want to say is Mike Stern. Some of that phrasing. [Is “spiffy and neat” positive or negative?] It’s cool! It’s very… I mean, there are several people. I’m trying to figure out who that is soprano. It’s a very kind of New York school recording. It’s weird. There are certain people… It makes me think of like super bop head mixed with the Scott Henderson type of trip, too. But it’s funky, too. Not that Scott Henderson isn’t funky… But it’s hard to play.  There are several people I could turn around and go, “Oh, it could be that person.” I like it, too, because it’s sort of goofy, in a weird… [LAST CHORD] See, that’s what I mean. See, that ending, the neat ending. That’s what I mean, it’s neat. Boy, that’s a tough one, man. In the rock section of the solo, it made me think of Mike Stern. It reminded me, for that matter, of Leni Stern. I’m not trying to lump people into a bag. But there was definitely a part of that that’s reminiscent of Mike. See, I didn’t want to play the guessing game.  The worst thing is I actually got a few right, and now that I got a few right, I’m like “Okay.” It’s very well done. The musicianship is high. Like, everyone that’s on the set is kicking. It’s a little nudge-wink-wink. It’s a little bit of “because I can” which is in the mix, which is fair enough, because everyone from M-BASE to Tribal Tech is kind of there—“because I can!” I’ll give it 4. [AFTER] Mike plays at a super high level. Mike’s walked in the fire, and I have mad respect for him, and admiration, too, because he plays his ass off. It’s funny, because a cat like him, there isn’t really much that he can’t play, so then it becomes a question of choices. Because he’s at that level of technical accomplishment where… So it’s really about choices. I mean, this was cool. A little overdetermined for my taste.

7. Bill Frisell, “Ron Carter” (from BLUES DREAM, Nonesuch, 2001 (Frisell, eg, comp.; Greg Leisz, guitars; Ron Miles, tp; Curtis Fowlkes, tb; David Piltch, b; Kenny Wolleson, d) (4 stars)

This is lovely. There’s something, for want of a better word, grand about it. There are two guitar players? Wow! This is a hard one. Mmm. Man, the phrasing reminds me of Frisell’s. It’s so funny, because the tone is so, in a way… If this is Bill, it’s the more agro side of his playing. Then the other person I’m thinking is Dave Tronzo. I’m grasping at straws. If it’s not Bill, the person is not a stranger to Bill’s work. It’s weird, I’m saying that, but it’s strange… It’s so… Okay. Listening to it, I will stick my neck out and say it’s Frisell. For the other guitarist, I could guess Wolfgang Muthspiel… I said Tronzo before. Maybe Tronzo. If not Tronzo, then I’m stumped. I don’t know that Marc Ribot and Frisell have recorded together, which would be frightening! But I loved it.  It was very stately.  I loved the simplicity of the bass line. I’m a sucker for that. I kind of came up with A Love Supreme playing in the background. [The piece is named “Ron Carter.”] I love that. I think people should start naming free jazz tracks for people in our government. Miles did it, and people should never stop that. I want to have a song called “John Ashcroft,” 20 minutes of total… Do an entire record where every record is a member of the Bush Cabinet. Condy Rice. That would be pretty funny. But I’ll give this 4 stars. I loved the arrangement.

8. Bireli Lagrene, Jimmy Rosenberg, “Swing ‘49” (from DJANGO REINHARDT NY FESTIVAL: LIVE AT BIRDLAND, Atlantic, 2000) (Lagrene, lead gtr solo, Rosenberg, 2nd guitar solo; Frank Vignola, rhythm guitar; Jon Burr, b) (3-3/4)

Whoo!  Whoa-hoo-hoo-whoo-hoo!  Whoa! Wow! It’s weird. I know who I want to guess the  guitar player is, but I can’t think of it. My brain won’t allow me his name. This is a gypsy kind of… I’ll know when you say the name… I’m completely blanking on it. But I’ll tell you what.  There was one arpeggio in the beginning of the thing that was just HO-LEE COW! This is the kind of thing Larry Coryell loves to do, though. This is very much a Larry Coryell… Larry Coryell is funny, because… This could be Larry and Julian. I was thinking about somebody totally else, but now… Because… Oh, BROTHER!! The playing is outrageously good. The other gypsy kid… It’s killing me. I can’t think of who it is. I hate when that happens to me.  He’s technically phenomenal, and I’m literally blanking on his name. But you know, the thought that it’s Larry… This guessing game is a craziness. Hey, man, shit, it… It’s a very regimented… It’s the kind of style where the playing is very on-the-beat. It’s like 16ths, 32nds, 64ths, with the occasional triplet thrown in. This is the kind of thing that you either do or you don’t. Heh-heh. I guess every music is like that, but… It’s another episode of “because I can.” They’re killing. They’re killing players. Star-wise? Can I give stars for technique and stars for… To me, shit, technique, it’s like, wow, 4½—the technique is high. The music? You know, I have to be in a mood… It’s sort of like music that wows me, but, like, “wow.” It’s music I respect. I love Django, of course, because Django is the great poet of the style. But the tune… So the technique is 4½, but the actual music I’ll give 3. That’s 3-3/4. [AFTER] I could not for the life of me call his name up. Especially after hearing that first arpeggio, I’d instantly say, “Oh, that’s Bireli Lagrene.” Absolutely. You know, he was a prodigy like Pat Martino. He was like a wunderkind. The guy’s playing at an incredibly high level. It’s like a heavily traditional thing. You go, “Okay, that’s great, I respect it, it’s wonderful, blah-blah-blah.” It’s a vernacular thing. It’s like not my thing, you know. Heh.

9.  Jimmy Smith/B.B. King, “Three O’Clock Blues” (from Jimmy Smith, DOT COM BLUES, Verve, 2000) (King, g, vocal, comp.; Smith, organ; Neil Hubbard, John Porter, g; Chris Stainton, p; Pino Palladino, b; Andy Newark, d)

[INSTANTLY] B.B. King. Well, I could have told you after that first note. B.B. King, baby! One of the King family. Freddie, Albert… You know what I love about this? He sounds committed. Tell you what. One time I saw Miles Davis and B.B. King, and B.B. King was opening for Miles Davis—the Beacon Theater. B.B. King opened up a can of whup-ass. Let me tell you something. I’d seen Miles before after he came back, and my jaw must have just pulled open. He came out, and I was enthralled. I couldn’t help myself. B.B. King came out, and maybe he knew he was opening for Miles Davis, but… You know all that kind of showy stuff?  He came out, and it was like, “Oh, no. Miles, you gon’ have to work tonight.” It took two-three songs before Miles… I mean, Miles was great. But B.B. King came out, and it was like, “No-no, no-no-no. No.” B.B. King will pull out some Charlie Christian shit out on your ass. Don’t sleep. He will pull some shit. “What did you do…?!” Lovely, man. The tone. The tone! The TONE. Tone. I like that this is an acoustic band. This is a little bit away from his… He’s a very popular artist. But this is more a back-in-the-day type of vibe than what he’s been doing a lot lately. I had the honor of working with Mr. King in the studio, co-producing a couple of tracks, and it was one of the great honors of my life to be in his presence. So I am very biased. People talk about the B.B. King style, and they don’t know what they’re talking about. It’s so encoded in his hands. You know what I mean? I’d definitely give it 4. [AFTER] Jimmy Smith?  See, that might be why! [LAUGH] It had that quality, man, of just… It’s raw. It’s rawer. Beautiful.

10. Noel Akchoté, “Peanut” (from SONNY II: THE MUSIC OF SONNY SHARROCK, Winter & Winter, 2004) (Akchoté, guitars; Sonny Sharrock, comp.) (3 stars)

Buggin’ out on the prairie! I like this. And one of the things I like about this is that it’s really not an attempt… It really is about the melody. It really is not about the technique. This is the kind of thing which is very difficult to do, to be interesting by oneself. I would take a guess that it’s Marc Ribot. It’s not Marc? Is it John Preshante(?)? Well, I don’t know who it is, but I like it. Marc put out a solo record which is very much in this… But that’s an electric guitar record, and this is obviously acoustic. But just the idea of just the guitar naked, but in a particularly… To do something that’s really not so based on kind of trying to do a virtuoso, Joe Pass type of thing, but just the melody, and really just an approach to what the song is. It’s not meant to blow you away with the guitar playing. It’s meant to deliver a particular interpretation of a melody. It’s funny, man. That to me is much more risky. Because if you are a guitarist of some accomplishment and you just keep at it-keep at it-keep at it, get it flawless, and record the flawless, impressive thing, there’s a certain… It speaks to an already going conversation about the guitar, that it should be done by highly skilled practitioners who play flawlessly. That’s very much a conversation about the instrument that is incredibly limiting. That’s not to say that people who can’t play should just do whatever.  And can’t-playing is more like, “Well, I really want to play like this, but I haven’t put in the time to play like that, so I’ll play like this.” Or, “I’m really not prepared to deliver this melody.” Or, “I’m not committed to the melody.” Or, if there is no melody, “I’m not committed to my improvisation.” And I’m not committed to it stand or fall. I’m making excuses about it, or I’m doing this fallback thing where, okay, well, I’ll put in something impressive technically or I’ll play the bebop thing so you know that I can play. To put in the bebop phrase to let you know that I “can play.” This whole need to justify. It’s a particular disease that guitarists have. It’s sort of like this idea that I’ve got to come up and let you know that I’m impressive like Buckethead or impressive like Sean Lane or impressive like this one or that one, and not to let the melody be itself. Obviously, these things can take you to technical places. I’m certainly not anti-technique. But what I liked about that piece is the fact that it is, in a way, a kind of un-playing, that is really about the song, about that melody, and there’s something very… I hear the wide-open plains. Obviously, a bluegrass cat would approach it in a totally different way, or someone into the Country-and-Western thing is going to go into the idiomatic thing. But I can go on and on and on, and I’ll stop right here! How many stars? Sticking my neck out… Having said all of that, then I give him 1! 1 star. 1 star forever, buddy! I’d give him 3.[AFTER] I have never heard of him. It’s interesting, because there’s this French cat, Marc Ducret. Wow! This cat is a cat of high accomplishment and derring-do.

11. John Scofield, “Name That Tune” (from LIVE: EN ROUTE, Verve, 2004) (John Scofield, g.; Steve Swallow, eb, comp.; Bill Stewart, d) (4½ stars)

It’s very interesting. This is Pat Metheny at his best. I might be wrong. I could be very wrong. It’s so not his tone. But the phrasing is so Pat Metheny at his most free, where he’s kind of… Like, on RIGHT SIZE LIFE, he played a couple of things by Ornette, and… It was a funny thing with Pat. Because on the one hand, Pat has got this… There’s a public, the popular face of Pat Metheny. And Pat Metheny operates at clearly three or four different levels. There’s the kind of damp hand…there’s the kind of moist and sensitive guitar-synth thing. Now, I give him a lot of credit, because I personally am really dedicated to guitar synth as well. But he’s really the kind of standard bearer for that.  Then there’s the very melodic kind of guitar playing thing. Then there’s the shit that’s like, okay…the OTHER part. That’s what I love. The SONG X kind of thing. [It’s not Pat Metheny, but generationally you’re in the ballpark.] That’s funny, because it’s very like Pat Metheny. Is it Scofield?! No way. Scofield!  Holy shit. Wow, this is fantastic! It’s so interesting, because there’s a school, Scofield, Metheny, Mike Stern… I mean, wow! He’s fucking going off! All right! I’ll give it 4½.  I’ll tell you what, man. When he joined Cobham… Cobham was one of those cats who brought out great guitar players. Tommy Boland. Stern. Ray Mouton, who nobody knows about, who is working in Las Vegas, who… He actually came to a Living Color gig, and I didn’t get a chance to see him. Ray Mouton is out of New Orleans. Truly gifted. Phenomenal guitar player and guitar synthesist.

12. Blood Ulmer, “What Is” (from FORBIDDEN BLUES, DIW, 1996) (Ulmer, eg, comp; Calvin Jones, ab; Calvin Weston, d)

Blood. I got it right. Instantly. He has a singularity. In a lot of ways, he’s very reminiscent of B.B. King, because his tone really resides in his hands. He has huge hands, and he has this way of making the notes literally pop out of the guitar. Sitting with him in his loft, and just hearing him play acoustically, it’s the same thing. The notes just pop out of the instrument. The band is playing fantastic, and Blood is just… Really, to me, two of the main guys in free guitar are him and Sonny Sharrock. Blood is a cat of almost mythic power. I mean, there is a real, dare I say it, dark majesty about him. 4½ stars, definitely. I didn’t give anything 5. I reserve 5 stars for hearing “My Favorite Things.” Or hearing…

[What would those things be? What would be a 5-star record?]

A five-star record would be literally something that… It would be very idiomatic to me. A five-star record to me wouldn’t have so much to do with the… The song would just destroy me. If it was possible, five stars would be hearing something that’s so connected to my life… It  would be hearing “My Favorite Things” for the first time. That would be 5 stars. “My Favorite Things” changed my life, because I knew The Sound of Music version, and hearing Coltrane’s version of it, I was struck by how different it was and how the-same it was. He’s playing to the lyric. He’s not using the song to blow over. He’s playing to the lyric. “When the dog barks, when the bee stings, when I’m feeling sad, I simply remember my favorite things…” I mean, that’s what he’s playing to.  And that conversation has lasted all the way up through Outkast putting an uncredited version of “My Favorite Things” on “The Love Below.” That’s a very powerful conversation for a piece of music to have.  And that is there because of Coltrane’s version. That’s 5.

Five stars is hearing Sly Stone’s “Family Affair” for the first time, or hearing “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds” the first time, hearing “Are You Experienced” the first time. That’s what that is. It’s like hearing “Never Mind The Bollocks”… Like, hearing “God Save The Queen” the FIRST time. Having the impact of it… In terms of improvisation, James Blood Ulmer, 5 stars is like the first time I heard “Are You Glad To Be In America?” The audaciousness of it. It’s like hearing the first U. Shrinivas tape I heard when he was 12 years old. He’s an Indian mandolin player.  And knowing, hearing him, that eventually his paths would cross with John McLaughlin, and he would eventually become involved with Shakti. It was inevitable. Like, hearing it, I said, “This kid is at least as good as John McLaughlin, and he’s 12 years old.” So those kinds of things are five-star experiences. Like, literally hearing “Remain In Light.” The first time I heard it, I was unmoored. I was like, “What is this?” Or hearing “Sucker Emcees,” the first time I heard it, is 5 stars.

So it’s not to denigrate anything I’ve heard. But it’s a very specific sort of thing, like life is different… It’s not really whether the cat playing this or that… But it’s like life is different now. Like, the first time I heard “Believe It,” heard Allen Holdsworth… But it’s not just Allen Holdsworth playing it. Because that record is weird. It’s a very ambient record almost. The sound of it is very ambient. It’s very unusual out of anything in the Fusion oeuvre. The song for me is “Wildlife.” I love the melody of that.

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