These Times is Mike Stern’s debut on ESC after a long career on Atlantic that began with Upside Downside in 1986. It sees him consolidating a subtle change of direction. Where once he seemed to be attracted to the polar opposites of either the backbeat or straightahead swing, with not much interesting him in between, here the accent is on world-music rhythms. To achieve this, Stern is ably assisted by bassist Richard Bona, whose voice is featured as much as his bass, and vocalist Elizabeth Kontomanou. Both appeared on Stern’s Grammy-nominated Voices from 2001, from which These Times seems to have grown organically.
Opening with “Chatter,” which combines a Moorish-sounding melody and a New Orleans second-line rhythmic feel, Kenny Garrett’s soprano sax and Kontomanou’s wordless voice meld in otherworldy unisons to unravel the serpentine theme. Stern gatecrashes with one of his forthright solos and a more equivocal backbeat, but already you are conscious he is marking out new territory. “Silver Lining” brings Bona’s lithe bass and castratolike falsettos in a song that recalls the Zawinul Syndicate. This is one of the best cuts of the album, even though Stern sometimes sounds rhythmically at odds with Bona’s subtleties, his straightahead instincts running ahead of his ears. Amid a certain amount of coming and going among the personnel, banjo superstar Bela Fleck joins in on Bona’s falsetto ballad feature “I Know You.” “Mirage” is apparently inspired by the music of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, with Kontomanou and Stern doubling the haunting melody. Rhythmically it has a strong world-music feel to it, but with a kind of implied backbeat that allows Stern to fly. “If Only” sounds like the kind of mid-Eastern pop music you might hear in a cafe in Turkey or Greece, but Bona is a little too cute on this. One of the standout tracks sees Stern reverting to type, a tribute to the late Bob Berg that evokes their lusty, look-Ma-no-hands collaborations in the ’80s.
These Times suggests that while the backbeat can be liberating, it can also be limiting, and Stern’s quest to address this has produced, if not a rounded statement, then an album that does not lack in musical curiosity and ingenuity.