Mike Stern: Who Let The Cats Out? – Jazz Guitar Life CD Review

With the just released CD (August 15, 2006) Who Let the Cats Out? on Heads Up International, Mike Stern has once again positioned himself at the top of the contemporary Jazz recording community.

Who Let The Cats Out?” is an electrifying and brilliant CD chock-full of all the elements that makes Mike Stern one of the most uniquely stylistic cats on the planet. Awe-inspiring technique, long flowing improvised lines, smooth over-driven blowing, funky rhythmic guitar parts, occasional power chords, slinky bends, complex bop-infused heads, heartfelt ballads, nylon string sensitivity, and an attitude that is playful and fun denotes the singular guitar voice that is instantly recognizable as being that of Mike Stern and Mike Stern alone. And that’s a good thing!

The cool thing I love about Mike Stern is that he is very comfortable in his musical skin as it were. With each new album he seems to continue where he left off and for me that familiarity is what makes Stern an outstanding player and composer. I never have to worry about picking up a new CD from Stern because I know it’s gonna be first rate and more importantly, just as fun to listen to as his previous endeavors. And that consistency is numero uno in my book.

Who Let The Cats Out? is of course no exception to the above rule but don’t think this is the “same old same old”. There are some interesting musical surprises that make this project a definitive must have. Most notable are the amazing players who “drop by” to lend Stern a hand.

Joining Stern on Who Let The Cats Out? are twelve of the most respected and admired cats making music today. Keyboardist Jim Beard, bassist/vocalist Richard Bona, bassist Chris Minh Doky, tenor sax player Bob Franceschini, trumpeter Roy Hargrove, bassist Anthony Jackson, tenor sax player Bob Malach, harmonica player Gregoire Maret, bassist Meshell Ndegeocello, drummers Kim Thompson and Dave Weckl and bassist Victor Wooten all join together in various combinations to make this CD a truly outstanding and extraordinary musical event.

To paraphrase a line from Metallica* “this CD is all killer with no filler”! And from the first tune “Tumble Home” to the last “Blue Runway”, the listener is treated to a plethora of extreme musical talent that should have you boppin’ in or out of your seat as the groove just keeps on giving, thanks in large part to the exceptional drum talents of Kim Thompson. Kim, who has shared the stage with Mike for at least a couple of years now, is featured on seven of the eleven original compositions, and if you have never heard her play before do yourself a favor and check her out. You won’t be disappointed. Just listen to “Tumble Home” for a powerful representation of what Kim can do. Of course Dave Weckl is no slouch either as he sits in on the remaining tunes with an ease and energy that is just envious.

And speaking of envious, how amazing is it having Richard Bona, Meshell Ndegeocello, Chris Minh Doky, Anthony Jackson, and Victor Wooten filling the bass chair? These cats are the cream of the crop and provide Mike Stern with a bottom end that just doesn’t quit. Richard Bona is featured on a majority of the tunes and gets a lot of room to showcase his unique playing style and angelic vocal quality on “Language”, “We’re With You”, and “All You Need”. Especially cool is his vocal scatting along with his bass solo on the Island themed tune “Good Question”. Based on “Rhythm Changes” it is a stunning piece that needs to be heard to be fully appreciated. As Stern states in the liner notes “I wanted to get Richard’s scatting on a tune because I’ve never heard him do that on a record yet…he does that every so often live when we tour, and it’s always amazing to witness.” ‘Nuff said!

Meshell Ndegeocello brings her unique personality to two tunes. The groove-laden “KT”, which Meshell sets up nicely from start to finish and the blues drenched “Texas”, where Meshell and Weckl hook up to capture the mood nicely. A job well done!

Chris Minh Doky on acoustic bass is up next and is featured on three tracks, “Tumble Home”, “Leni Goes Shopping” and the title track “Who Let The Cats Out?”. This cat can play and walk like a mofo and has a great tone that fits in nicely alongside the more electric instruments. Definitely a cat I want to check out more.

Roll With It” is the tune that features bass “monster” Victor Wooten delivering the goods as he slaps and slides his way through a chorus and a nice exchange of musical dialogue with Stern. As Stern states “…Victor plays his ass off…” and Bob Malach lays down some great Sax playing that brings to mind late 70’s Brecker Brothers funk ala “East River”. Great stuff!

The last tune “Blue Runway” pairs Weckl with Anthony Jackson and is just killer with an extremely explosive outro that had me rocking my head vigorously back and forth like a “Wayne’s World” extra…:) Anthony Jackson just keeps it real and grooving adding nothing but great playing and “soul”. And check out Stern’s rhythm playing. He really cuts loose with some snappy funked up figures that just makes the whole tune work that much more. In fact this is the only CD that I can recall that features Stern’s rhythm playing throughout a majority of the tunes. Definitely worth checking out and don’t miss his “down in the mix” slide playing throughout the tune “Texas”. Billy Gibbons would be proud.

Now if this wasn’t enough to run out and yank “Who Let The Cats Out?” off the record store shelf, how about adding Roy Hargrove, Jim Beard, Gregoire Maret, and on-going touring partner Bob Franceschini to the mix.

Roy Hargrove and Gregoire Maret appear on two cuts each, and as you can imagine, both players bring their unique voice to each tune, adding a color and dynamic that kick the compositions up a notch.

Roy Hargrove is featured on the title track and on “KT” bringing a nice mix of funk and straight ahead to the table. He swings through both tunes with a melodic and harmonic awareness that match’s Stern’s proclivity for the improvised line and sense of fun. And the call and response exchange between him and Stern, near the end of “Who Let The Cats Out?”, is worth the price of admission alone.

Adding another layer of color is the harmonica of Gregoire Maret featured here on the beautiful ballad “We’re With You” and the smoldering bluesy “Texas”. His unison playing with the melody alongside Stern and Bona on the outro of “We’re With You” lends a haunting quality to the tune and his playing throughout “Texas” really adds to the mood of the tune conjuring up images of dusty trails and scorching hot days.

The remaining two players, Jim Beard and Bob Franceschini, have probably played with Mike Stern the longest out of all the cats on this date, bringing an intuitive sense of what is needed to bring these tunes to life. Franceschini is just such a monster sax player that whatever is put in front of him is transformed into a musical statement of high regard. Just check out “All You Need”, “Tumble Home” and “Good Question” to hear a talent definitely deserving wider recognition.

Jim Beard, while sitting in on all the tunes, also produced this project and is as indispensable to this recording as Stern is himself. Plus the cat can play some wild piano. Check out the Monk-ish** style tune “Leni Goes Shopping” for a small glimpse of a large talent. His supportive playing behind Stern is steadfast and unfaltering and whether he’s playing piano, organ or synth, you know it’s gonna groove and be a welcome addition to the tune. And he’s got a sense of humor as is evident on the clustered harmonized synth line he plays alongside Stern on the head out of “Leni Goes Shopping”. My ears took a double take on that one.

The last player to be mentioned is of course Mike Stern. I really don’t need to mention that this is one cat who knows how to get the most out of his players and himself. His playing is just awesome on this CD as he “succumbs” to the feverish string manipulations of what critic Bob Milkowski calls Stern’s “Bop and Roll”. Stern is definitely having fun and you can hear that on every cut. But whether he’s playing fast and furious (“Blue Runway” “Tumble Home” “Texas”), or contemplative and sensitive (“Language” “We’re With You”), Stern is playing and working his ass off to present the music to the listener as honestly as he can. And that’s what has kept him at the top of his game for the past twenty-odd years.

Who Let The Cats Out? is a purrr-fect addition to anyone’s CD collection, and I look forward to more great music from Mike Stern in the years and decades to come.

* Paraphrased from the Metallica Documentary “Some Kind of Monster”
** Jazz writer/critic Bill Milkowski’s descriptive phrase from the liner notes.

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