Mike Stern, one of the most recognized and celebrated guitarists of his generation, releases his Heads Up International worldwide Grammy nominated debut album, Who Let the Cats Out? (HUCD 3115). On Stern’s thirteenth release as a leader, the award winning three-time GRAMMY nominee continues to blur the boundaries between jazz, funk, blues and rock with eleven unique originals.
"This record is a return to more instrumental playing, more blowing," says Stern. "In some ways it’s straight ahead, but filtered through my rock and blues influences. I’m still interested in incorporating vocals, so I wanted Richard Bona to sing on my record. I composed the tunes thinking about which musicians would work best for each track. It seemed organic, and I think worked out well."
Who Let the Cats Out? was recorded in January 2006 and features a stunning lineup including bassists Richard Bona (who handles vocals on two tracks), Anthony Jackson, Meshell Ndegeocello, Chris Minh Doky and Victor Wooten, trumpeter Roy Hargrove, saxophonists Bob Franceschini and Bob Malach, drummers Dave Weckl and Kim Thompson, harmonica player Gregoire Maret, and keyboardist/producer Jim Beard.
"I’ve always wanted to work with Meshell Ndegeocello and Kim Thompson," Stern says. "Meshell is a very special musician and Kim is really a phenomenon. They’re both so musical. Of course, playing with great musicians like Roy Hargrove, Jim Beard, Dave Weckl, Gregoire Maret and all the rest of these guys is always amazing."
The album title is a double entendre, according to Stern. "Leni, my wife, loves cats," he explains. "We’ve got four cats, and you know how cats can get. They’re always running around and checking stuff out – they’re always playing. The title fits the music, too. When we made this album there was a really playful vibe. I love when musicians have fun with the music, when they play from the heart and when they get room to do what they do best."
It isn’t surprising that Stern spent time playing with Miles Davis. Like the legendary trumpeter’s best work, one never knows what to expect from a new Stern release. Who Let the Cats Out? offers a range of memorable melodies with plenty of dynamic playing by the guitar hero and crew. The album ranges from bluesy, powerful funk ("Tumble Home," "Roll with It") and lots of dynamic interplay ("KT," "Texas") to tightly-packed new jazz ("Good Question," "Leni Goes Shopping") and gentle, heartfelt ballads ("We’re with You," "All You Need").
Songs like "Language" are long enough to allow the music to develop, with each musician taking a turn in the conversation, while it’s nearly impossible to resist tapping your feet to the beat of the title track. All the while, Stern weaves in and out of the group’s sound with ample confidence, always playing within the music and maintaining his instantly recognizable voice on his instrument. The album closes with the gradually rising fury of "Blue Runway."
Born on January 10, 1953, in Boston, MA, Stern got his start as a guitar player with Blood, Sweat & Tears at the age of 22. He then toured with Billy Cobham for a year, and it was at one of the legendary drummer’s gigs in New York City that Miles Davis first heard Stern. After moving to New York City, he was recruited by Davis to play a key role in his celebrated comeback band of 1981. From 1983 to 1984, he toured with Jaco Pastorius’ Word of Mouth band and in 1985 returned to Davis’ lineup for a second tour of duty that lasted close to a year. In the summer of 1986, Stern went out on the road with David Sanborn and later joined an electrified edition of Steps Ahead. Stern made his debut on Atlantic Records in 1986 with Upside Downside. From 1986 through 1988, he was a member of Michael Brecker’s quintet and later joined a reunited Brecker Brothers Band, appearing on 1992’s Return of the Brecker Brothers.
Stern’s acclaimed 1993 release, Standards (And Other Songs), led to him being named Best Jazz Guitarist of the Year by the readers and critics of Guitar Player magazine. He followed that up with 1994’s Is What It Is and 1996’s Between The Lines, both of which received GRAMMY nominations. In 1997, Stern recorded Give And Take, and won the Orville W. Gibson Award for Best Jazz Guitarist that year. Stern’s next release was a six-string summit meeting with colleagues Bill Frisell and John Scofield that was appropriately titled Play. Voices (2001), his first foray into vocal music, earned Stern his third GRAMMY nomination. He released These Times for the ESC label in 2003.
"I’ve been very fortunate to have played with lots of great musicians like Joe Henderson, Miles, Jaco Pastorius, Mike Brecker and Dave Sanborn, just to name a few," says Stern. "It seems to me what they all have in common is that they’re wide open to so many different kinds of music, and no matter what they play they put their heart and soul in it."
Regardless of Who Let the Cats Out?, Stern’s Heads Up debut is another outstanding album from this innovative, highly accomplished and incredibly versatile guitarist. He is, indeed, as one writer put it, "one of the true guitar greats of his generation."