Guitarist Mike Stern’s new record All Over the Place features a veritable smorgasbord of bass talent: Esperanza Spalding, Richard Bona, Victor Wooten, Anthony Jackson, Dave Holland, Tom Kennedy, Will Lee and Victor Bailey. Like a kid in the rhythm section candy shop, Stern audibly delights in playing with these guys. Further, the quality of Stern’s writing, the variety of grooves and the addition of several guests on saxophones and trumpet make this record one of Stern’s most exciting CDs to date.
This is a hugely eclectic record in terms of style and groove, reflecting Stern’s stated approach.
“I’ve been playing a lot of different kinds of great music with a lot of different musicians on some of my more recent records,” says Stern. “I love bebop, swing, rock, all the stuff that a lot of guitar players – especially jazz players – tend to include in their music. It’s the nature of the instrument, but very much a part of my nature as well. There’s a lot of music that really inspires me, and it usually covers quite a few territories.”
Several of Stern’s recordings have been hugely important in terms of the electric bass’ development in jazz. He first came to my attention on Miles Davis’ We Want Miles, released in 1982 as I first became aware of Marcus Miller’s huge musicality and legendary tone and groove. In the early 80’s he also became friends with Jaco Pastorius and joined Jaco’s “Word of Mouth” band. You can read extensively on Stern’s recollections of his friendship and music making with Jaco in Bill Mikowski’s essential book Jaco.
Later, I came across his 90’s trio with Dave Weckl and, surely the most underrated bassist ever, Jeff Andrews. Live videos from that trio have provided rich material for transcription for legions of fusion bassists. Then there came Stern’s 2004 DVD The Paris Concert with Bona, Dennis Chambers and Bob Franceschini, which is quite breathtaking, essential even.
Stern, born in 1953, graduated from Berklee as a rising star within years, touring with Blood Sweat and Tears, Billy Cobham and Miles Davis. Stern co-led a band with Bob Berg that were renowned for their intense gigs and played a major role on Michael Brecker’s records and later with The Brecker Brothers.
Back to the new record… 11 tracks, eight bassists, with tunes as diverse as they come.
“AJ”, the opening track, was written specifically for contrabass guitarist Anthony Jackson. It features chiming guitar, a loping ‘one-drop’ melodic line hook from Jackson and drumming from Keith Carlock that just builds and builds. There is an air of mystery here: this is no shred-fest, and Stern and Chris Potter contribute gorgeous solos building gradually to wailing intensity.
“Cameroon” is named for the West African country which has produced so many legendary bass players, including the one on this track – Richard Bona. It features bubbling bass and mostly wordless vocal melody from the brilliant bassist/multi-instrumentalist. The music approaches Joe Zawinul’s brand of world jazz fusion, and the track develops through various moods. Stern plays a simmering, chorused solo that builds to sustained bent notes over fluid bass and nimble drumming before saxophone soloing soars until the track fades.
“Out of the Blue” has Mike’s wife Leni Stern playing a three stringed Malian ngoni. Tom Kennedy is on electric bass. The pentatonic blues-influenced intro segues into a tricksy theme over a “Love Supreme” bass figure. Kennedy lays down some excellent, supportive walking on the modified minor blues feel at a fast tempo responding wonderfully to intense guitar and trumpet solos from Stern and Randy Brecker respectively.
The tempo changes radically for “As Far As We Know”, a quiet, tender ballad featuring Esperanza Spalding on upright bass and wordless vocals. There is an attractive Spanish tinge to the music and effective use of atmospheric string pads. Stern plays some delicate acoustic guitar and manages to create a lovely, spacious feel on this track. Spalding’s playing is sparse and beautifully timed, and her voice hauntingly evocative, blending well with the guitar.
“Blues for Al” – the first of three tracks featuring drummer Al Foster – has a loping groove that reminds me of Sting’s “Consider Me Gone”. It manages to be both funky and swinging, grounded by some immaculately grooving upright bass by Dave Holland and some raucous alto saxophone, possibly by Kenny Garrett. The short bass solo is a delight.
Surprise surprise, the next track – “OCD” – is intense and energetic. Foster’s intricate cymbal work adds layers of color, and presumably Holland again on upright a magic carpet of gorgeous walking bass. Stern, clearly enjoys himself massively as he solos at length, playing and building phrases against the songs smooth, swift swing. Stern appears to love playing with Foster, as was also apparent on the album Four Generations of Miles the pair played on with George Coleman and Ron Carter in 2002.
Garrett also has a blast on alto, tumbling phrases over intense bass and drums and momentum building piano chords quoting from Cole Porter as Foster builds to a rolling torrent of drums underneath. The coda groove is something else!
“You Never Told Me” is another acoustic ballad. Stern’s guitar dovetailing with piano from producer Jim Beard as the guitarist again shows his pensive and lyrical side supported by some restrained upright pedal tones and light cymbals.
“Half Way Home” has a bluesy bass-led groove from Victor Wooten, and Stern gets to show off his blues guitar. Lionel Cordew is funky as anything on drums and Wooten’s playing is just a dream. I think this is one of my favorite examples of Wooten’s playing. Stern began in rock and blues before he attended Berklee and here he relishes playing some wailing guitar over the soulful backing. Wooten’s solo just begs to be heard – grooving, musically intense and sonically wonderful. Trust me, you need to hear this. It also manages to incorporate artificial harmonics, slides, slap, double stops, trills and more without the technique once sounding like it is getting in the way of the music. Wooten is simply driven by the music here.
“Light” has an intense 16th note African feel. Bona’s mostly wordless vocal and the driving bass groove over the uptempo reggae influenced track create an catchy, accessible sound that Stern plays an joyous sounding solo over before an enjoyably rhythmic saxophone joins the fun.
“Flip Side” has a bass line reminiscent of “Inner City Blues” and a slinky, late night jazz theme. Bob Malach joins on tenor saxophone and both he and Stern lay down solos that build intensity over relatively mellow grooves anchored by fabulously solid and grooving bass.
“All Over the Place” starts – as the title suggests – all spiky and sparse. The funky groove led by Anthony Jackson on bass and Keith Carlock on drums builds and Stern’s solo lays down tumbling lines of notes and rock influenced bends. Malach lays down fiery saxophone alternating with Jim Beard’s intense piano over the fabulous rhythm section groove.
“The guitar tends to keep you open-minded, because you hear it in so many places,” says Stern, “You hear it in rock, in country, in pop, in funk, in classical, you hear it in jazz, you hear it in so many kinds of music that you can immediately identify it on one level or another.”
The high level of writing and playing here, coupled with the great variety of grooves, moods and feels make this an exciting and varied record.
“Music, to me, is a language of the heart,” Stern says. “I hope people will get some emotional payoff from what I’ve done on this recording. That’s the vibe that I continue to go for with all of my music.”
Preview All Over the Place:
All Over the Place Line Up:
- Mike Stern: guitar
- Jim Beard: keyboards
- Randy Brecker: trupmpet
- Leni Stern: rhythm guitar
- Kenny Garrett, Chris Potter, Bob Frenceschini and Bob Malach: saxophones
- Dave Weckl, Keith Carlock, Lionel Cardew, Al Foster and Kim Thompson: drums
- Esperanza Spalding, Richard Bona, Victor Wooten, Anthony Jackson, Dave Holland, Tom Kennedy, Will Lee and Victor Bailey: bass