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If Mike Stern were a guitarist coming out of the 1960s, he'd be a hero today. Sure, there's always John McLaughlin. But not many other guitarists then - or now - could play rock guitar with the high degree of intimacy and the non-assaulting technical prowess that Mike Stern has always possessed.
Plus, if there was any kind of justice in jazz, Miles Davis's Star People (1983) would be regarded as one the great records of the Eighties it has always surely been. There, Mike Stern in commanding communiqué with John Scofield, laid the law for what jazz-rock had hoped and ceased long before to achieve. It's just that jazz listeners had stopped caring.
Which brings us effectively to Play, Mike Stern's ninth Atlantic disc over the last baker's dozen years. The question is - be honest how many of us knew of or heard the preceding eight?
Well, the big news is that Play isn't really newsworthy. It's Stern doing his own thing - a catchy rock take on post-bop jazz with a first-rate cast of musicians. Again. The guest seats, filled this time by guitarist Bill Frisell and John Scofied (but unfortunately not together), are all people will hear about. However, Stern displays a continuing ability here to hone his melodic craft and perfect his catchy compositional skill. That's what'll Play on after all the hype is gone.
All ten selections are Stern's own, while Scofield guests on three pieces and Frisell sits in on four. Like Scofield did for Medeski, Martin & Wood on last year's A Go Go, Stern here concocts melodies suggested by the much more distinct styles carved by his fellow plecterists.
Scofield goes to Scofieldland for the funky "Play" and catchy "Small World." But Stern breaks the mold a bit for the swingy bop romp, "Outta Town," which lets the reuniting guitarists show their chops a bit and shows how Stern's harshness has mellowed through the years without any loss of bite.
Frisell's tracks took Stern's group to Friztown (Seattle) for the disc's most interesting numbers. Of course, there's the Frisell country-folk-jazz-Americana of "Blue Tone" and "All Heart." But Stern also challenges Frisell to the electro-avant-bop duel of "Frizz" and the surprisingly funky "Big Kids" (which postulates the intriguing concept of a Frisell funk album).
The remaining three tracks - "Tipitina's," "Link" and "Goin' Under" - offer the more familiar Stern groove with his working band featuring keyboardist Jim Beard, the Breckeresque Bob Malach on tenor, bassist Lincoln Goines and (former Scofield) drummer Dennis Chambers.
Since neither Scofield nor Frisell set off any major fireworks, Play ultimately becomes a showcase for its star, Mike Stern. The composer and guitarist is totally in his element here. And if high-ticket guests like Scofield and Frisell bring him the attention he's long been due, then Play is Stern's own hero's welcome.
Tracks:Play; Small World; Outta Town; Blue Tone; Tipatina's; All Heart; Frizz; Link; Goin' Under; Big Kids.
Players:Mike Stern, guitar; John Scofield: guitar on "Play," "Small World" and "Outta Town;" Bill Frisell: guitar on "Blue Tone," "All Heart," "Frizz" and "Big Kids;" Ben Perowsky, Dennis Chambers: drums; Lincoln Goines: bass; Bob Malach: tenor sax; Jim Beard: keyboards.
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