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Mike Stern: Play

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For fans of Mike Stern, recommending his latest CD is like preaching to the choir, but for those unfamiliar with Stern’s guitar, PLAY maybe the music that calls you to the church-house door.

Teamed up with guitar-buds John Scofield and Bill Frisell, Stern offers music lovers, and guitar devotees especially, a cornucopia of killer riffs, funky licks, soulful blues, and kick-ass solos—making PLAY one of his most diverse and accessible releases to date.

Recorded in New York and Seattle, Stern’s ninth project for Atlantic includes tunes composed distinctly for “Frizz” and “Sco” in addition to choice cuts featuring Stern and his working band: Dennis Chambers on drums, Lincoln Goines on electric bass and Bob Malach on tenor sax. (Jim Beard, keyboard, and Ben Perowsky, drums, also appear on a number of tracks).

The band pieces are tight, polished and decidedly funky—the kind of crowd-pleasing jams that keep a room packed. Goines and Chambers lock-in with laser-like crispness, laying down some serious grooves with deep bass accents and percussive counter-rhythms on Link and Goin’ Under. Tipatina’s, a tune named after the popular New Orleans nightclub where Stern gigged with Jaco Pastorius, does the work of 10 average funk grooves. Stern and Malach fall in naturally and each fill up the musical canvas with their own unique style of improvisation, while Beard, who also produced, stays in the shadow of the rhythm section. (Mental note: Don’t miss these guys live!)

Seven of the ten tunes on PLAY find Scofield and Frisell in turns paired-up with Stern. With Sco and Frizz, two of Mike’s close friends, who happen to be VIP guitar players, there’s a natural tendency to listen close and attempt to decipher who plays what, where and when. This is a good, if somewhat obvious, exercise. John’s gritty tone and Bill’s celestial, looping effects are as recognizable as they are enjoyable.

But what’s even better—and more rewarding—is hearing the cumulative whole that combines each man’s distinct style, sound, and creative voice. PLAY treats listeners to sixty minutes of intelligent, witty, soulful conversation between guys who clearly, just love to play.

Outta Town, with Sco in the mix, has the heaviest bebop leanings, while Stern’s fragile ballad, All Heart finds Frizz, purring strange and beautiful chords as Stern’s guitar sings pensive, determined lyrics wrought with inner-strength.

However, the CD’s final track entitled Big Kids gets my vote for being the most fun and crazy and “out there” tune on the recording. A mix of tear-it-up blues, prairie existentialism, and funky Broadway, Stern, Frisell and the band take a long-distance journey that stretches as far as you need to go, and farther.

A fair test of likability is simply how, after a few listens, a recording grows. Does it die quickly? Does it branch out? Do you sing it without knowing? Personally, I can say that if PLAY grows any faster, I’m going to have to get a bigger apartment.

Title: Play | Year Released: 1999 | Record Label: Love Records

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