Mike Stern Who Let The Cats Out?

Mike Stern can command respect based on his tutelage alone, never mind his track record, but lucky release number 13 sees the studied guitar technician distancing himself even further from the somewhat limiting fusion label that forever dogs his best efforts. This progressive collection of 11 original tracks speaks to collaboration over slick soloing, a Stern staple these days. Stern’s natural progression from Berklee College under Pat Metheny through to B, S & T, Billy Cobham and Miles Davis helped build his player’s credibility on bedrock, yet Cats clearly demonstrates his maturity as a team player while the guests, including Roy Hargrove, Victor Wooten, Anthony Jackson, Dave Weckl, Me’shell NdegéOcello and Cameroon bassist Richard Bona, set the stage for a true creative spark. As a result, you’ll find a blend of many voices that serve the many stand-out pieces, including the title track, which routes through bop territory, anointed with a killer Stern solo and driven by Hargrove’s fiery, full-tilt trumpet riffage. The stunningly simple ballad "We’re With You” melds Stern’s acoustic guitar to Gregoire Maret’s mournful harmonica, while "Roll With It” ups the funk factor thanks to Wooten’s influence and Bob Malach’s sax. Boasting as many personalities as a cat has lives, Stern nonetheless delivers on all of them, lifting off the page on the somewhat uncharacteristic eight-minute-plus jam of "Blue Runway,” which pitches soaring leads against a rhythmic wall of sound anchored by Jackson’s bass and the always buoyant keyboards of Jim Beard. A satisfying collection of Stern’s precision approach to his art form, it would be good to let these Cats get out more often. (Heads Up)