This CD review was originally published in the January 15, 2015 edition of Blues Blast Magazine. Be sure to check out the rest of the magazine at www.bluesblastmagazine.com
Mike Stern and Eric Johnson – Eclectic
Concord Music Group
12 tracks / 72:22
Two powerhouse guitarists, Mike Stern and Eric Johnson, first got together when Mike asked Eric to play a few tracks on a recording project, which led to a performance together at the Blue Note in New York City. They had such a good chemistry on this show that they could not just go their separate ways, so they recently completed a neat cooperative effort, Eclectic.
Mike Stern is a top shelf jazz guitarist and Berklee graduate who has released 16 of his own albums, six of which were nominated for Grammy Awards. His big break was in 1976 with Blood, Sweat & Tears, and since then his career in the various genres has been nothing short of impressive. He has performed and recorded with an amazing cadre of artists, including Miles Davis, Jaco Pastorius, David Sanborn, the Brecker brothers, and Bela Fleck. The list goes on and on, bit you get the point.
Eric Johnson provides the rock half of the equation, and his curriculum vitae is no less solid, with a Grammy Award and five nominations of his own. Eric took up the guitar at the age of eleven (as Beatlemania took hold of the US) and in just a few years he jammed with Johnny Winter who later remarked, “When I heard Eric, he was only 16, and I remember wishing that I could have played like that at that age.” After a four-year stint with Austin, Texas’ seminal fusion band, the Electromagnets, he went on to cut ten of his own albums. Along the way he garnered the respect of big name guitarists such as B.B. King, Billy Gibbons, and Steve Morse, and had the opportunity to tour with his fellow guitar gods Steve Vai and Joe Satriani.
Eclectic was recorded in just 3 days at Johnson’s Austin, Texas studio, with few overdubs and a decidedly live feel. It clocks in at well over an hour and serves up eleven original tracks and one kicking cover. Stern and Johnson handle the guitars (obviously) and they are joined by the rock solid backline of Anton Fig on drums (late night with David Letterman’s World’s Most Dangerous Band) and Chris Maresh, Johnson’s regular bassist. A few key guests contributed as well, and their disparate backgrounds ensure that Eclectic is not just a clever name.
Austin’s pre-eminent soul man, Malford Milligan, helps kick things off with his growly vocals on “Roll with It.” His chops are a good match for the intricate guitar work on this funk rock piece, and the backline delivers a rock steady beat without being too flashy. After this things get jazzy with “Remember,” a six-minute fusion instrumental piece that might not be terribly radio-friendly, but it is super-listenable and features a killer bass groove from Maresh, who has no trouble keeping up with Johnson and Stern.
The instrumental “Benny Man’s Blues” is a tribute to Benny Goodman, and though it has the word “blues” in the title it defies categorization. There is a blues backbone, but it is layered with distorted bluesgrass picking, jazz rhythm guitar / bass, and knockout rockabilly drumming. Things calm down a bit for “Wishing Well” which is peaceful despite its fast tempo. This is surely helped along by the sweet vocal stylings of Grammy winner Christopher Cross, Johnson’s longtime friend and fellow Texan.
Maresh’s “Bigfoot” benefits from a world music intro that features Mike’s wife, Leni Stern, on vocals and n’goni. After 90 seconds of her lovely melodies, things go all experimental electric jazz, and it is hard to believe that the band was able to put songs this complex together in just a few days and still have them sound good.
Eric is not known for being a jazz guitarist, but one of his big inspirations is Wes Montgomery, and “Tidal” is a tribute to him. He also does not forget his own musical past, as he placed an Electromagnets song, “Dry Ice,” into the mix. This high-energy fusion instrumental exercise sounds huge, and Fig’s driving snare and kick drum propel this thing into overdrive for almost seven minutes. In keeping with the eclectic theme the horn section of saxophonist John Mills, trombonist Mike Mordecai and trumpeter Andrew Johnson join in on “Hullabaloo,” the most poppy and accessible track on the disc.
The album finishes up with a fresh take on Jimi Hendrix’s “Red House” with Stern and Johnson switching off on the vocals, and it turns out that they can both sing well too. Jimi inspired these guys, and their talent makes sure it is a fitting tribute. For good measure Guy Forsythe kicks in some tasteful harmonica work, which add a new element to this blues-rock classic.
Mike Stern and Eric Johnson’s Eclectic is a spontaneous collection of very good songs that were recorded by two of the best axe men in the business. If you love guitar music with no boundaries, this is the album for you. Hopefully their collaboration will continue after this project and we will get to hear more from this dynamic duo!