Two bona fide guitar heroes in their respective fields – Eric Johnson in the rock realm and Mike Stern in the jazz world – go toe-to-toe on Eclectic, a scintillating musical showcase that brings together their disparate influences in one potent package. Guitar aficionados of all stripes will stand slack-jawed hearing these formidable six-stringers exchanging high octane licks on Stern's funky "Roll With It" and Johnson's cruising pop anthem "Hullabaloo" (a kind of answer to his catchy GRAMMY®-winning rock instrumental "Cliffs of Dover" from the platinum-selling 1990 album Ah Via Musicom). The two dip into a jazzy bag on Eric's "Tidal" (a tribute to his own personal guitar hero, Wes Montgomery) and on Mike's surging modal romp "Remember" (patterned after John Coltrane's "Impressions" with some allusions to Jimi Hendrix's "Third Stone From the Sun"). More fretboard flights ensue on Johnson's jazzy "Benny Man's Blues" (a kind of ode to Benny Goodman and Charlie Christian) and on Stern's dark, slow-grooving "You Never Know." And it is somehow fitting that these two sons of Jimi close out this six-string extravaganza with a scorching rendition of the famous Hendrix blues, "Red House," with each of them trading vocal choruses. "It was my singing debut," says Stern. "I sang the first verse and Eric sang the second verse, then he sings the first two lines of the third verse and I sing the last two lines of the third verse." (Stern also sneaks in a quote from Jimi's "Third Stone From the Sun" on a smoking rendition of "Dry Ice," an Electromagnets tune which Eric revived for this session). Sterns sums up the project by saying, "This whole record, even though we did it in the studio, was really recorded live. A couple of things were fixed but there was that spontaneous quality which is what we were looking for and I definitely think that's what we got. I really dig the way this record came out. It has a lot of energy and a lot of musicality."
Recorded at Johnson's studio in his native Austin, Texas, Eclectic, scheduled for release on October 27, 2014 on Heads Up International, a division of Concord Music Group, is anchored by the flexible rhythm tandem of drummer Anton Fig (a longstanding member in the Paul Shaffer-led house band of Late Night With David Letterman) and Johnson's regular bassist Chris Maresh, who also contributes the open-ended Bitches Brew flavored "Bigfoot." Special guests on this three-day session include Austin's resident soul man Malford Milligan, who sings with gravelly-voiced gusto on the opening "Roll With It." "He's just awesome," says Johnson. "Malford's got so much vibe it doesn't matter what he sings. He just puts magic on everything." Mike's wife Leni Sternalso provides vocals and plays n'goni (an African stringed instrument) on intros to "Bigfoot" and "Wherever You Go." Christopher Cross (the GRAMMY® Award-winning songwriter of "Sailin'," "Ride Like the Wind" and "Arthur's Theme (Best That You Can Do)" as well as a fellow Texan and longtime friend of Johnson's) sings backup vocals on the bridge to Stern's beautiful "Wishing Well" with Mike singing the verses. Guy Forsythlends some blues harp to "Red House." And Johnson's catchy "Hullabaloo" is punched up by the horn section of saxophonist John Mills, trombonist Mike Mordecai and trumpeter Andrew Johnson.
Not only have the two guitarists admired each other's playing for years (Eric heard Mike back in the '80s with Miles Davis, and Mike first heard Eric when his hit "Cliffs of Dover" caught on big back in 1990), they came to have a greater appreciation of each other's songwriting abilities during the course of the Eclectic sessions. "I've been aware of Mike for years and I was familiar with some of his playing," says Eric, "but I wasn't as deeply familiar with his songwriting. As we began working together, I started going through all his songs and I was just blown away by some of the ballads. His tunes 'Wishing Well' and 'Sometimes' are beautiful. And his tune 'Wherever You Go' is one of my favorites on the record. I think that's another thing we have in common: we both get turned on by and really enjoy a good song. If there's some kind of viable composition that's put together in a way that emotes to people, we're both real fans of that and that's why it's exhilarating to do it. We're both interested and sensitive about songwriting and composition, and consequently since we're also so passionate about playing guitar I think we try to figure out how to do it in a way that serves the composition. So I think what comes out of that is just a little bit of a tension and a little bit of care and concern about what the other person is playing. I'm constantly thinking, 'How can I voice what I'm playing to fit what Mike is playing? How can we make it work in a musical way?'" And they strike a rare accord throughout Eclectic.
The seeds for this extraordinary six-string summit meeting were planted in 2009 when Johnson played on two tracks from Stern's GRAMMY®-nominated album Big Neighborhood. As Stern recalls, "At that session, which we also did down in Austin, I remember us saying, 'One of these days we should do a record together,' but I never thought that would happen. And then we played a gig together at the Blue Note in New York, and it kind of went from there." Johnson and Stern's week-long engagement at the Blue Note in August 2013 was preceded by two warm-up nights at the Regattabar in Boston, where they further explored their musical chemistry together. "It was really fun for me because we have different priorities in our playing," says Stern. "I'm more of a jazz player, of course...that's my priority and I love that stuff. But I also love rock and blues-rock and straight blues and Motown. That's how I came up. I started off listening to Jimi Hendrix, Smokey Robinson, Aretha Franklin and the Jackson Five, and of course, lots of blues. Those were my roots. And then I got more into jazz when I was about 17. I fell in love with it. And ever since then my priority has been with my jazz playing. But I have that other stuff that comes out in my music. And it always has. For Eric, jazz has never has been his total priority, although Wes Montgomery is his favorite cat. So he has a lot of that sensibility in his playing. And as we started playing together we discovered that we really had so much in common. So it was definitely fun."
Stern was ecstatic about getting an insider's look at Johnson's unique six-string vocabulary. "The way this cat plays! I'm just beginning to figure out what the hell he's doing. He does these pedal steel kind of licks on guitar and such beautiful orchestration. He picks some notes with his right hand using his fingers and pick together. He plays a lot with his fingers and pick, and some of the runs that he uses...the lines that he plays are very harmonically sophisticated. He can play piano, so there's some pianistic stuff that happens with his comping. And he's got Travis picking down. Plus, he's a singer, so that influences his phrasing on guitar. Everything he plays is really cool and beautiful. It's just very much Eric Johnson. He's got his own style and it's amazing! And more than that, he's just a very soulful cat. He plays with a lot of heart and soul. And I love that!"
Adds Johnson, "I was mentioning to Mike when we did this recording that it was one of my favorite double guitar situations that I've ever done, because a lot of times you do two guitar things and it's hard for it to fit together in a very musical, cohesive way. It can get kind of busy, where you cover each other up. But through dynamics and listening to each other and thinking about the way we voice chords and support each other, I think this collaboration lent itself to being more in a musical kind of way, which has been a real nice experience for me."
With Johnson's warm-toned distortion licks, smooth intervallic leaps up the fretboard and his occasional audacious wah-wah licks blending organically with Stern's fiery be-bop and blues-based vocabulary, Eclectic is chockfull of thrilling fretboard fusillades, tempered with some uncannily lyrical six-string work by two of the most esteemed players of their generation. For music aficionados, this collaboration is a match made in heaven.