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More than two decades into his solo career, Mike Stern, on his 13th album as a leader, continues to prove why he's earned so many "Best Jazz Guitarist" honors through the years. Stern's skills are undeniable, and new ideas never fail to materialize when he's at work. But what makes Stern stand out from the pack of virtuosic guitar technicians is that he always insists on letting his, and his support team's, abilities serve the music, not vice versa. On Who Let the Cats Out?, Stern and his well-chosen crew spill out lick upon impressive lick, but they never get so carried away with themselves that they lose sight of the tune's purpose and structure. Grandiosity is never a factor here, although there are dozens of occasions to applaud these musicians' chops. Richard Bona, the Cameroonian bassist, has worked with Stern before, but here he is given an expanded role, appearing on four tracks and contributing his falsetto-style, scat-like vocals to three of them: On "All You Need," one of the prettiest tracks on the record, Bona provides an uplifting sensuality. He also shines on "We're with You," a ballad featuring Stern on acoustic guitar. Devoid of pyrotechnics, this song of support to those hurting utilizes synth-derived orchestration and a mournful, quiet tone to bring home its emotionalism. Drummer Dave Weckl -- who alternates throughout with the excellent Kim Thompson -- is another major pacesetter here: On "Texas," the often-overdriven Weckl restrains himself, his no-frills drums and Me'Shell NdegéOcello's creative bass chasing Stern's skronky slide while Gregoire Maret's harmonica provides the necessary borderland flavor. The title track, a quasi-swing/bop showpiece, finds Stern -- peeling out some of his most blazing, how'd-he-do-that? riffs -- and trumpet great Roy Hargrove trying to outdo each other and calling it a draw. Stern's soloing throughout the record is, in fact, ceaselessly imaginative: Whether within a total funk exercise like "Roll with It," which borrows Victor Wooten from the Flecktones for bass duties and spotlights sexy sax from Bob Malach, or the moody ballad "KT," on which Stern's guitar escalates in intensity alongside Jim Beard's soulful organ, Stern finds his place within the song's architecture, then rises several levels above what's required of him to present something unexpected and rewardingly original. Only on "Blue Runway," the eight-and-a-half-minute closer, with Anthony Jackson taking over the bass, do the players allow themselves to approach tediousness. Overextending themselves as they shift into hyperdrive, they turn the piece into a jam for its own sake. An anomaly, it doesn't by any means detract from the album's overall quality, though it does allow it to end on a disappointingly self-absorbed note.
Performance CreditsMike Stern Primary Artist,Acoustic Guitar
Roy Hargrove Trumpet
Chris Minh Doky Acoustic Bass,Upright Bass
Bob Franceschini Saxophone
Anthony Jackson Bass Guitar
Meshell Ndegeocello Bass,Bass Guitar
Dave Weckl Drums
Victor Wooten Bass,Bass Guitar
Richard Bona Bass,Bass Guitar,Vocals
Grégoire Maret Harmonica
Kim Thompson Drums
Technical CreditsJim Beard Audio Production
Mike Stern Composer
Dave Love Executive Producer
Phil Magnotti Engineer
Bill Milkowski Liner Notes
Robert Hoffman Art Direction
Clay Patrick McBride Images
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
OK, I admit it...I wasn't familiar with Mike Stern or his music until I stumbled on it an a BN listening station...my musical tastes had gone down the blues highway since the inception and undeserved popularity of "smooth jazz" (which I find revolting!!!) and befor that, I leaned towards the big band sound. I found his music to be refreshing and fun to listen to. He's got a new fan!! I can't leave without commenting on the sidemen (and woman) that play behind him...many of whom are headliners in their own right!!! What a tight group!! This is what jazz is all about!!!
After a two CD flirtation with Methenyesque vocal-driven jazz, Mike Stern goes back to basics with this release, and what a welcome return. Featuring such luminaries as Victor Wooten, Dave Weckl, Richard Bona, and Roy Hargrove as sidemen, "Who Let the Cats Out" is probably Stern's strongest outing since "Play." It's a shame Mike Brecker could not play on this CD, but "We're With You," the tender ballad co-dedicated to Mr. Brecker is the next best thing. The compositions are nicely varied and cover the stylistic map, and it's interesting to hear him add some new harmonic coloring, working with trumpet and harmonica on this recording. But the real reason anyone listens to Mike Stern is to hear him burning through changes, and his chops are as impressive as ever. He even kicks in the distoration on occasion, as if finally realizing that nasty edge to his sound was part of what made him great. Highly recommended.