Mike Stern, guitar – Big Neighborhood – Heads Up HUCD 3157, 70:16 ****:
I would like to preface this review with a confession. I am only a recent convert to being a fan of Mike Stern’s. What might further appall his fan base is the fact that it has been his more recent (and mellower) world jazz albums that effected that conversion. I saw him a little while back with the Yellowjackets and really connected with his playing, so I was looking forward with anticipation to hearing his latest release. I was not disappointed.
Big Neighborhood is exactly what the title suggests, a sprawling collection of tunes that feature collaborations with a diverse group of A list musicians including guitar hero Steve Vai, the hyper-creative organ trio Medeski Martin and Woods, trumpeter Randy Brecker, drummer extraordinaire Dave Weckl and the fresh talents of bassists/singers Esperanza Spalding and Richard Bona, just to name a few.
While many albums of this sort wind up sounding like a random compilation of tunes brought together under one artists’ umbrella, Big Neighborhood is firmly tied together by pianist Jim Beard’s remarkable production skills and Mike Stern’s distinctive compositions. There really is something for everyone here, from the opening title track, a Hendrix-influenced rocker featuring guitar hero Steve Vai to the gentle musings of the gorgeous ballad ‘Bird Blue,’ one of several tunes that feature the amazing Esperanza Spalding’s beautiful vocals and bass.
Stern’s intention for this project was to have as few overdubs as possible and the result is an infectious feeling of excitement, which prevails throughout the album. Just listen to the tune “Check it Out” with Medeski Martin and Wood. It sounds like the band is having a ball. Tenor man Bob Malach turns in a spirited performance on this jaunty funk groove.
Other high points include “Reach”, an up tempo African-inspired Richard Bona feature that would’ve fit perfectly on the album ‘Voices’ or “These Times”. Of particular note is the bebop inspired “Coupe de Ville” featuring bassist Spalding and Terri Lyn Carrington on drums, perhaps the most straight ahead tune on the album. This tune has the makings of a classic and in this reviewer’s opinion deserves a place in the jazz standard repertoire-it is that good. Steve Vai returns for an all-stops-out world fusion composition entitled "Moroccan Roll" that really turns up the heat. The album closes with a medium tempo blues that opens up for plenty of blowing by Sterns and guest artist, trumpeter Randy Brecker who is in fine form here.
This is a well-paced feel good album with a relaxed, loose vibe. Mike Stern certainly plays in a Big Neighborhood and moreover, it turns out to be Big Fun.
— Brian Whistler