The Graham Album Review #192
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Eric Johnson & Mike
by George Graham
(Heads-Up 35468 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 10/29/2014)
Duet albums, consisting of the pairing of performers who usually don't work together, have long been part of the pop music scene. Sometimes it's done out of a desire for market share, aiming for the combination of fans of both artists. And sometimes it's a musical collaboration that grew organically from musicians seeking each other out. Some of the more interesting duet albums come from performers who usually play in different styles, and whose combination would seem unlikely. Of course, such seemingly unmatched pairings don't always work artistically, but at their best, such duet albums can provide a new insight into the workings of each of the performers. The most common of the duet recordings are vocal pairings of pop stars, such as the Tony Bennett duets. But with the guitar being so central to rock over the decades, there have been a good number of guitar duet releases. This week we have one that's a very good example of two rather different guitarists developing a musical affinity and creating a record that not only shows off their respective playing, but how a couple of guys who usually play the only guitar in their groups can work together supporting each other nicely, and still maintain their respective stylistic trademarks.
It's a new joint album by rock guitar luminary Eric Johnson, and jazz and fusion maven Mike Stern. They call their album Eclectic.
This is not the first time that Johnson and Stern have worked together. Johnson, who just released his own live alum recently, made a guest appearance on a previous Stern album in 2012. The new album contains a musical mix that features compositions by each of the guitarists. They work with a common rhythm section with a few added guests – a mix of people who have worked with Eric Johnson, and present and former colleagues of Mike Stern, including his wife Leni Stern.
Eric Johnson grew up and still lives in Austin Texas. He was a guitar prodigy and started performing professionally at an early age. He worked as a studio musician for a while, playing on Christopher Cross's hit Sailing. He also did studio work with Cat Stevens and Carole King. In the early 1990s, Johnson attracted a lot of attention with his album Ah Via Musicom which won a Grammy Award for rock instrumental. And since then, he has been high on the list of critical and fan favorites among rock guitarists. He is known for his wide ranging guitar tones and sonic textures and his distinctive playing style that with wide interval jumps and rapid-fire but smoothly flowing guitar lines.
Mike Stern, born Michael Sedgwick, and half brother of actress Kyra Sedgwick,turned his attention to jazz while studying at the Berklee College of Music. In the 1970s, Stern began an association with some well-known fusion pioneers, including Miles Davis, with whom he spent close to four years in two separate stints during the 1980s. He was also a part of a later edition of Blood Sweat and Tears, played with Billy Cobham, from whose band Davis recruited him, the Brecker Brothers and Jaco Pastorius' Word of Mouth group. Stern began recording as a leader in 1986, with his album Upside Downside. And he has been releasing a continuing series of stylistically eclectic records since then, with styles from straight fusion to more distinctive things like collaborating with banjo man Bela Fleck, and bringing world music influence in through the contributions of people like his wife Leni Stern and African-born bassist Richard Bona. We featured Stern's previous album, All Over the Place, released in 2012, on this review series at the time.
The two guitarists' collaboration began when Eric Johnson appeared on two tracks as a guest on Stern's 2009 release Big Neighborhood. In 2013, they did a couple of several-day residencies at jazz clubs in New York and Boston. They recorded the new album Eclectic in only three days at Johnson's own studio in Austin. Each brought in original tunes and they proved to be a good vehicle for them to highlight their approaches, often contrasting quite a bit. The regular band includes bassist Chris Maresh, as well as drummer Anton Fig from the David Letterman show band. And there are some guest appearances by Mike Stern's wife Leni Stern who does some vocals and plays an n'goni string instrument, plus Christopher Cross, and vocalist Malford Milligan, who has worked with Johnson previously.
The generous 72-minute-long CD more or less lives up to its title Eclectic with material that runs from the straight-out rockers that Eric Johnson is known for to a kind of atmospheric world music mix that is the forte of Stern. Fan of both guitarists will usually be able to guess the composers of the mostly instrumental material without looking at the credits. But the CD opens with one of only two full vocals with lyrics, which interestingly was written by jazzman Stern, Roll with It. It's sung by Austin soul-influenced singer Malford Milligan. <<>> It's a good example of showing the contrasting but complementary styles of Johnson and Stern as they exchange riffs in the solo section. <<>>
Also by Stern and showing more of his jazz background in a track called Remember. The guitarists again work very well together, playing the so-called "head" of the tune in lockstep. <<>>
A piece by Eric Johnson that shows his Texas roots is a kind of Western-swing influenced piece called Benny Man's Blues, which it turns out is a reference to jazz great Benny Goodman. <<>>
Very much in the world music influenced style of Mike Stern is Wishing Well. Except for his solo, Johnson generally stays in more of a supporting role. <<>> Some of the wordless vocals are sung by Christopher Cross. <<>>
Eric Johnson brings out a tune he played with his old early band the Electromagnets. It's a piece called Dry Ice which is as close to a straight-out rocker as this album comes. It provides an opportunity for some guitar pyrotechnics by both pickers, though for me, it's not the album's most memorable. <<>>
Eric Johnson's composition, Tidal takes a jazzy swing direction, and Johnson plays octaves in the style of Wes Montgomery, but it doesn't really swing as a jazz tune. Drummer Anton Fig, as versatile as he is, doesn't quite nail the easy swing groove the tune should have. <<>>
Mike Stern's bluesy rocker of a tune is called You Never Know which the duo take with aplomb, though no particular surprises. <<>>
The CD ends with a straight out blues, Jimi Hendrix' Red House. Stern, who doesn't usually sing, shares a respectable lead vocal with Johnson. <<>>
Eric Johnson and Mike Stern's new joint album Eclectic is a worthwhile project for the guitar fan. Both are fine players and both have distinctive sounds and styles, which makes the contrasts between them on the album, and how they work together so well, so satisfying. However, of the original material, some of which are tunes Johnson and Stern had previously recorded on earlier individual albums, none of the compositions really stands out. But that's OK with so much non-stop high quality guitar playing. Despite Stern's decades of jazz experience, the tracks that are more jazz oriented tend to lack that certain rhythmic swing that is not really drummer Anton Fig's strength. This album was recorded in three days at Johnson's home studio, and the two gave some live appearances together. But I think that if this CD had been recorded after more of a tour, in which they found their respective grooves, this might have been a little more outstanding an album, but as it is, it's still at a pretty stratospheric level musically.
In terns of sound quality, I'll give the album an A-minus. Most of the time the mix is clean and the electronic effects on the guitars are perfectly fine. There's more volume compression than I would have liked, but it's not as squashed out as many heavily compressed albums. The one thing that I think could have been done differently is that, with two guitars players, it only seems natural to put one on each of the stereo channels. Instead, both guitarists are spread out to both channels with their stereo amplification setups, and the listener is left to identify the guitarist by their tone or style.
In a world of synthesizers and computer generated pop, the guitar still holds a special appeal for rock and fusion fans. Eric Johnson and Mike Stern's Eclectic is a great way for guitar fans to get their fix.
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