Album review: ERIC JOHNSON MIKE STERN – Eclectic

Eric Johnson Mike Stern - Eclectic
Eric Johnson Mike Stern – Eclectic 

Heads Up [Released 10.11.14]

Not so much ‘Eclectic’ as simply exhilarating, the pairing of blues-rock guitarist Eric Johnson and jazz fusion guitarist Mike Stern may not have generated a lot of new material (Stern for example revisits some of his own back catalogue), but it ignites some inspired playing on album full of poise, variety and sparkle.

Recorded live in the Johnson studio, ‘Eclectic’ pushes both talents to the limit as each guitarist brings out the best in each other on a mesmerising album.

The beautifully uplifting fusion piece ‘Wishing Well’ is the perfect example of this, as it draws on the duo’s countless possibilities. And it the spontaneous choices that Johnson and Stern pursue that provides the album with subtle dynamics, rich tones and sumptuous band interplay.

‘Eclectic’ is a triumph of  performance over genre, as this album could easily have just been a fleet fingered fusion work out, but there’s an essential balance, married with real musical substance, deep grooves and wonderful playing. This is evidenced in the way the two guitarists intuitively ebb and flow, while their contrasting tones provide light and shade.

The album opens with a fusion led, fluid sweep from Johnson and a clean toned, sinewy response from Stern, on the latter’s ‘Roll With It’. The two guitarists engage in conversational playing over a funky back beat that provides the perfect framework for Malford Milligan’s gritty vocals.

‘Remember’ is tailor made for the band, being a lightning instrumental on which Johnson takes the soaring top line and the two guitarists meander in and out of the groove over the surging rhythm section of Chris Maresh and Anton Fig. Given the relatively short time span of the recording, the band’s cohesion is remarkable.

‘Benny Man’s Blues’ is a joyous shuffle over a surging bass line as Johnson swings and Stern paints audio pictures with his spiralling solo. The rhythm section is magnificent as it continually pushes the two guitarists to the limit.

‘Wishing Well’ is an uplifting melody featuring guest vocalist Christopher Cross on bv’s and leads to a beautifully solo resolution from Johnson over a tic-toc rhythm.

There’s variety and a change of pace too on ‘Big Foot’ which features Leni Stern on gentle waves of a ngoni – a sitar sounding, West African stringed instrument – and a tribal chant. She provides a contrasting mood and feel on the intro of a track that gives way to a funky workout full of tonal arcs and intricate interplay.

One moment Johnson solo’s passionately, the next he’s all restraint while Stern cuts loose and then they fills the collective musical palate with a mix of volume swells, nuanced tones and vibrant note clusters on a number of compressed intensity

The jazzy ‘Tidal’ is a polar opposite piece, full of lightness of touch and breezy solos with Anton fig’s delicate cymbal work and Chris Maresh’s bass pushing the groove. ‘Tidal’ could have been the template for much of the material here, but its symptomatic of the album as a whole that the duo seek wider musical boundaries to embellish with their impressive abilities.

The riff led ‘You Never Know’ is heavier and full of swagger, while ‘Dry Ice’ positively rocks, as Eric leans into a frenzied solo shadowed by Fig’s brusque percussion work. The piece momentarily drops down, only to rise again on the back of Maresh’s pulsating bass line, which levers in another dazzling solo from Stern.

The track features the kind of bristling interplay we all know these musicians are capable of, but it makes a significant impact by being sequenced at the three quarter mark of the album. Conversely the meditative and extended ‘Sometimes’ provides a melodic breathing space, while ‘Hullabaloo’ adds a horn-led, layered sound on another uplifting melody.

The final 2 tracks could have been in danger of sounding like an unnecessary adjunct to fill the CD playing time, but the intro to ‘Wherever You Go’ again draws us into a gentle Mike Stern gentle ballad, before the album closes with a celebratory version of ‘Red House.’

‘Eclectic’ is a fine crossover album that should bring both guitars many new fans. *****

Review by Pete Feenstra

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