Mike Stern has very few peers among modern musicians in general, and electric guitarists in particular, especially onstage. He’s democratic on his new Big Neighborhood CD, which features appearances by a handful of the musicians in his league, including guest guitarists. Yet it’s a studio effort, even while featuring some of the same personnel (saxophonist Bob Franceschini, drummer Dave Weckl) that helped fuel Stern’s last piece of product, the 2008 live DVD New Morning: The Paris Concert.
As with most of Stern’s studio discs, Big Neighborhood simply lacks the unbridled improvisation and interplay of his stage shows. The guests are also so numerous that things feel contrived. The opening title track is essentially a mid-tempo instrumental rocker that finally peaks near its coda through the dueling guitar solos of Stern and Steve Vai. “6th Street” features guitarist Eric Johnson, whose interplay with Stern and organist Jim Beard makes the atmospheric track a highlight. Then comes the chanted vocal portion of the CD on the next four tracks—one with bassist/vocalist Richard Bona, three with singer and bassist Esperanza Spalding. All have their moments, but perhaps could have been placed non-sequentially.
“Moroccan Roll,” a Middle Eastern-tinged piece featuring Vai (on sitar guitar), Weckl, Beard and bassist Lincoln Goines, re-energizes the proceedings. Then keyboardist John Medeski, drummer Billy Martin and bassist Chris Wood, best known for the trio bearing their three last names, guest on the disc’s banner track. The free-form funk of “Check One,” which also features saxophonist Bob Malach, bears similarities to MMW’s two recordings with the guitarist who replaced Stern in Miles Davis’ band, John Scofield. Perhaps with better sequencing and a solid band, Big Neighborhood (which was recorded in Los Angeles, Austin and New York City depending on the guest personnel) might not seem so all over the place.